Review 2003: The Museum Guard

I have been a big fan so far of Howard Norman’s quirky novels. However, I had a slightly more mixed reaction to The Museum Guard.

DeFoe Russet has lived in the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax ever since his parents died in a freak Zeppelin accident when he was eight. As a boy, he was cared for by his uncle Edward, if you can call it that. Edward is an irresponsible, gambling, drinking womanizer with a lot of opinions.

DeFoe works as a museum guard in the small Glace Hotel, where his uncle also works when he bothers to show up. DeFoe is very much in love with Imogen Linny, the caretaker for the local Jewish cemetery. However, although they are lovers, Imogen is difficult and seems often to tolerate DeFoe.

DeFoe doesn’t seem to realize how stuck he is in his life. He has no plans except to continue working as a museum guard and to persist with Imogen. He is interested in listening to the tours of the museum given by Miss Dello, a local professor, and likes to think about the paintings.

Edward has been making himself obnoxious about DeFoe’s relationship with Imogen, whom DeFoe has kept from meeting Edward. But Imogen has recently become fascinated by a painting in the museum, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam by Joop Heijman. Then there is a fateful meeting between Imogen and Edward in the museum. Imogen essentially dumps DeFoe and begins spending a lot of time with Edward, who without permission lets her into the museum at night to be with the painting. Soon, the novel takes a bizarre turn as Imogen begins to believe she is the woman in the painting.

The novel is set mostly in 1938 and 1939 against the background of what is happening in Nazi Germany. DeFoe tells us on the first page that he steals the painting for Imogen, and the novel is about what causes him to do that and what happens afterwards.

I guess this novel is about stepping out of ordinary life. However, a lot of time is spent on DeFoe’s obsession with Imogen, maybe a bit too much, and the novel just gets weirder as it goes along. I’m not saying I disliked it, just that it wasn’t one of my favorites of Norman’s novels.

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Review 1866: The Bird Artist

The Bird Artist, I find, is listed as the first in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy, of which The Haunting of L. is the third. I’m not sure I understand the grouping, since I have read several other books by Norman and they are all set in Canada, so far. However that may be, I continue to be charmed by his work even though it all seems to explore some dark places.

Fabian Vas is the narrator of the novel, and he tells us right off the bat that he has murdered someone. Then he goes on to describe his life in the remote village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland, where he becomes a bird artist and boat fixer, beginning his story in 1911.

Two complicated sets of relationships affect Fabian’s future when he is a young man. One is that between Alaric, his mother, and Orkney, his father. The other is between himself and Margaret, his longtime friend and lover. Margaret is acerbic, and Fabian seems ambivalent. Alaric hates Margaret, so she talks Orkney into arranging a marriage for him with a cousin he has never met. It is this arrangement that kicks off a series of events ending in some fatalities.

That makes it sound like a dark novel, but it is not. In fact, it has a lightness to it, in tone, in its insights in its characters. It is about betrayal and guilt but also about redemption. Another fine novel from Norman.

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Review 1598: The Haunting of L.

In 1927, Peter Duvette accepts a job as a photographer’s assistant in Churchill, Manitoba. The day he reaches the remote town, he meets his boss, Vienna Linn, and Linn’s fianceĆ©, Kala Murie. Kala is in the middle of a lecture about spirit photography, in which the spirit of the deceased person appears in photographs of family or friends. After the lecture, Linn and Murie are getting married.

So, Peter is surprised when that night he ends up in bed with the bride. It’s not too long before Kala tells him that Linn makes money by causing disasters that he photographs for a rich client. So far, these disasters have mostly been train wrecks.

Quirky isn’t exactly the word for this novel, because it is about a truly evil person. But it is certainly hard to predict where it will go. It’s eerie and atmospheric while still presenting a moving love story. This is the third book I’ve read by Howard Norman, and I’ve greatly enjoyed them all.

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Review 1583: The Northern Lights

I so much enjoyed Howard Norman’s My Darling Detective that I made a note to myself to read more by him. I finally chose The Northern Lights because of its setting.

In the 1950’s, Noah Krainik lives with his family on an isolated lake in northern Manitoba. His father Anthony is a geographer who is mapping the far reaches of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, so he leaves Noah, his mother Mina, and his cousin Charlotte alone for months at a time. He blames his work, but there are some events that don’t add up. For example, while out working he somehow ended up in Halifax and arranged for Charlotte to live with them after her parents were killed in a factory collapse. Halifax is a long way from either Manitoba or Saskatchewan.

Every summer, beginning when he is nine, Noah takes the mail plane to Quill, 90 miles away, to live with his best friend Pelly and Pelly’s aunt and uncle, Nettie and Sam. There he experiences the richer life of a village of Cree Indians, trappers, and others who prefer this wilderness life that smacks of a much earlier time period. The novel begins, though, in 1959, when 14-year-old Noah learns of Pelly’s death.

This evocative novel explores the life in the wilderness and what happens when Anthony’s desertion provokes a move out of the wilderness to Toronto. There, Mina gets a job at the Northern Lights movie theater, where she first met Anthony.

This is a novel full of interesting, colorful characters, and I greatly enjoyed it. I especially liked the portion set in remote Manitoba.

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Day 1167: My Darling Detective

Cover for My Darling DetectiveBest of Five!
My Darling Detective is an absolutely charming book. It is not a conventional mystery novel, despite its title. Instead, it focuses more on the characters’ everyday lives.

In 1970’s Halifax, Jacob Rigolet is attending an auction, bidding for his employer on a photograph from World War II, when a woman runs in and splashes the photo with a bottle of ink. To Jake’s horror, the woman is his mother, who is supposed to be safely tucked up at the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital.

Jake’s fianceĆ©, Martha Crauchet, is a detective who has caught a cold case that she thinks may be related to this incident. Back in 1945, the year Jake was born, Detective Robert Emil was suspected of murdering and assaulting some Jewish citizens of Halifax. A woman who identified him as being near the victim at the time of the murder disappeared. The connection Martha sees is that Emil also attacked Jake’s mother during the same time period, the same day Jake was born, in fact. Alert Martha also realizes that Bernard Rigolet could not possibly be Jake’s father, as he had been deployed to Europe for a year when Jake was born and in fact died in Germany two days after his birth.

Nora Rigolet’s breakdown is also a mystery. Long a respected librarian at the Halifax Free Library, she was committed after an incident in which she appeared to believe the war had just ended. In the midst of this breakdown, she set up a display in the library of photos by the same photographer whose work she tried to deface three years later at the auction. This photo, called “Death on a Leipzig Balcony,” actually shows Bernard Rigolet in battle one day before he was killed.

As Martha and her two partners, Hodgson and Tides, gather evidence against ex-Detective Emil, Martha tries to get to know Nora, to uncover the events surrounding Jake’s birth. This novel is said to be an homage to film noir, but it’s not really noirish. The charm of this novel lies in the relationship between Martha and Jake, with their honest and funny discussions, their love of the radio program Detective Levy Detects, and the details of their everyday lives.

This is a charming and likable novel, with amusing dialogue. I understand that Norman is known for his novels set in the Maritimes, and I will be seeking out more.

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