THE BIRD ARTIST by Howard Norman
Kirkus Star


Email this review


Adultery, murder, and an arranged marriage are the meat in this exceptionally strong, classy period melodrama by the author of the acclaimed The Northern Lights (1987) and the short-story collection Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad (1989). This is a story about quiet country people who suddenly lose control of their lives; about the gap between the knowable, external world and our unknowable secret selves. Narrator Fabian Vas, born in 1891, lives in the remote settlement of Witless Bay in Newfoundland. His father, Orkney, is a semiliterate carpenter; his mother, Alaric, is well-educated, dissatisfied with her lot. Fabian is a talented bird artist who will eventually sell his drawings to magazines. The center of his life is Margaret Handle. When Fabian is 16, the strong-willed mail boat pilot's daughter initiates him into sex; it is always Margaret who calls the shots. Fabian's passivity will be his downfall. He goes along with his parents' bizarre scheme to marry him off to Cora Holly, a cousin they've never met, even though he's aware that Margaret considers it a betrayal. More flagrant is Alaric's betrayal of Orkney. While he's away on a bird-harvesting expedition, she begins a brazen affair with gloomy, antisocial Botho August, the lighthouse keeper. All hell breaks loose on Orkney's return. The astonished Fabian finds he has shot Botho dead with Margaret's revolver; the Vas family flees justice. Though the murder and flight have high-wattage intensity, it is Margaret's story that resonates the most, with the lyric force of a ballad. Norman is a superb storyteller who makes normality and nightmare equally convincing. We believe in the wrenching disorder precisely because the hitherto orderly rhythms have been as steady as the ticking of a clock.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1994
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: "Farrar, Straus & Giroux"