Friday, February 19, 2010

I Was Warned

My fellow blogger Dorothea warned when she lent me Howard Norman's The Bird Artist. Her caveat - the book's main characters, all residents of the Newfoundland fishing community of Witless Bay, have one thing in common – they each lack a moral compass. And it's not as if the action takes place in these modern days of moral relativism. The novel is set in 1911, and the narrator Fabian Vas, the bird artist of the title, announces on the first page that he has murdered the lighthouse keeper Botho August.

This is not my first encounter with quirky Newfies. Annie Proulx's “The Shipping News” had a few. But the Vas family (son Fabian; parents Alaric and Orkney) are as odd and unpredictable as their names. Alaric begins an adulterous affair with no explanation and no regret. Fabian feels far more passion about the birds he draws than about his crime.  And Fabian's love interest Margaret downs a bottle of whiskey or two a night. Impulse control is definitely not a common trait in Witless Bay.

And yet there was something oddly compelling about the story. Part of it was the humor – the description of an arranged marriage which ends with the groom in handcuffs was particularly entertaining. And part was like watching a train wreck – you know the murder is coming and it's hard to look away.

Norman's style is understated and as laconic as Fabian himself. If you're in the mood for something quirky and offbeat you might enjoy it.  But you've been warned.

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