Master of the lonely souls succeeds again
It's easy to gush about Howard Norman. His 1994 novel, "The Bird Artist," a finalist for the National Book Award, is always at the top of my list when asked for reading recommendations and I don't know anyone who's been disappointed.
Isolation influences almost everything that happens in "The Bird Artist," narrated by a melancholy young man who lives in a far-off fishing village in Newfoundland. It's a wonderfully imagined novel, and details of the early 20th century so exquisitely define this remote time and place it's hard to believe that Mr. Norman isn't writing from personal experience.
He does it again in his latest novel, "What Is Left The Daughter."
The year is 1967 and Wyatt Hillyer is writing a letter to his daughter, a device that gives the novel a complex literary dimension. He often evokes her name, Marlais, as if praying for her to understand the odd events in his strange and complicated life.
"I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven't told you."
He begins by explaining what happened to him when he was only 17 -- his parents are both in love with the same woman. Seeing no future in that love triangle, they both commit suicide jumping off different bridges in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Both leave verbal goodbyes to the policemen trying to coax them down.
From his mother: "I suppose this will be on the radio."
From his father: "I just knew this would happen."
Wyatt drops out of high school and moves to Middle Economy, a small coastal village, to live with his aunt and uncle. His uncle, a master sled and toboggan maker, allows Wyatt to become an apprentice, something Wyatt accepts with resigned reluctance, as he does everything in his life, everything, that is, except for when he falls for his adopted cousin Tilda. Characters react drastically in Mr. Norman's world.
Like most of his female characters, Tilda is a strong woman who knows exactly what she wants from life and exactly how strong she must be to get it.
Unlike Wyatt, she rarely hesitates. Her parents send her to Halifax to be hypnotized so that she will forgo her dream of becoming a professional mourner. On the bus ride home, Tilda meets Hans Mohring, a German student of philology studying at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Unfortunately for Wyatt, they marry and Tilda's strong-headedness gives him no hope that her heart might change its mind.
But it's 1942 and war is raging in Europe, so Tilda's choice of a husband is not popular with the town's residents. Her father is especially heartbroken.
Mr. Norman is a powerful storyteller with a wistful, whimsical, even magical manner of presenting his imagery worlds. The places he presents, the situations and characters are quirky, but they are so artfully defined and unique, it's like being told a story in a brand new way.
It's exciting to read such a brilliant evocation of a past era. If Mr. Norman has a trademark it would have to be the way he unfolds his narratives; his characters tend to act on their destructive impulses, and chaos is sometimes just the way life is.
Wyatt's uncle is a radio junkie. He spends his days listening to news of the war, seeking out disasters and hearing conspiracies in the daily broadcasts. Soon Wyatt realizes that his uncle has become dangerously obsessed with the possibility of German submarines in the nearby bays of the Atlantic Ocean. And then finally there is the sinking of a ferry by one of them.
Wyatt, orphaned by the reckless desires of his parents, becomes emotionally catatonic for many years. But finally, tired of the loneliness that has defined his life, he finds the courage, one might even say, the daring to ask for a relationship, and the novel ends with his hope that this one might give him some happiness. This is another Norman novel I will now gladly recommend.
First Published August 15, 2010 12:00 am