Books: “The Bird Artist” by Howard Norman
Novelist Howard Norman, the author of “The Bird Artist”, is himself an odd duck. Born to Russian-Jewish parents in Toledo, Ohio, he attended college in Michigan, where he became fascinated with the culture and folktales of Cree Indians. This prompted him to not only write about the wilds of North America and its various Native tribes, but to move to the Maritime provinces of Canada, the location of several of his award-winning novels.
Set in the early 1900s, “The Bird Artist” takes place in a small Newfoundland town named Witless Bay (yes, that’s really its name), where young Fabian Vos, when he isn’t helping out his fisherman father, draws pictures of birds. As a teenager, he falls for a wild, local young woman named Margaret, but his parents have meanwhile arranged for him to be married to a distant cousin in Halifax, sight unseen. Marriage isn’t something Fabian’s parents are especially knowledgeable about; his mother has an affair with the lighthouse keeper while the father is off on a months-long fishing voyage. Suddenly, there’s a murder in the town.
While you’re busy wondering who done it, you’re apt to notice Norman’s genius for capturing the details of small-town life, before there was such a thing as television or the Internet. As he demonstrated in “The Museum Guard”, which I reviewed this past summer, Norman can bring to life an entire range of comical, eccentric and interesting characters. These includes the local pastor who has it in for Fabian; a motherly old woman named Helen; and Margaret herself who would have been played by a young Helena Bonham-Carter in the hypothetical movie version. Besides the murder, there are enough climactic events—a botched rescue at sea, an escape to Nova Scotia, and a mural that Fabian paints in a chapel—to keep you turning the pages.
Norman has said that a real-life mural he saw in a small Canadian church was the inspiration for this novel. While he’s more given to telling tales in Algonquin and Eskimo, we should give thanks that he’s told this charming story in English.