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DEVOTION by Howard Norman


by Howard Norman

Pub Date: Feb. 8th, 2007
ISBN: 0-618-73541-0
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

A fledgling artist’s attempts to give design and coherence to his personal life are the subject of this appealing if odd sixth novel from the free-range Vermont author.

What we first learn of protagonist David Kozol is that he had, during his London honeymoon, been found—by his new father-in-law William Field—in a hotel room with another woman. This resulted in a scuffle during which William was struck by a taxi and severely injured. The novel then shifts forward and backward, depicting David’s developing fascination with disturbingly unconventional Czech photographer Josef Sudek, his soaringly romantic chance meeting with Maggie Field (publicist for a traveling chamber orchestra) and the impulsive marriage that brought David (a Vancouver native) to Nova Scotia and the rural estate of its absentee owners (Holocaust survivors) Isador and Stefania Tecosky, where William caretakes and acts as guardian to a flock of (rather intemperate) swans. Following William’s “accident,” David becomes the caretaker for both the estate and William, maintaining a wary détente with the aggrieved older man—who eventually makes good on his repeated promise, “I’ll knock your lights out.” David is an appealing, credible, flawed young man (William thinks he’s a “man who doesn’t have the slightest notion of how to handle life”). The novel is also flawed, however, by overabundant exposition and occasionally awkward shifts from present- to past-tense narration. But it’s filled with engaging characters (the voluble charmer Maggie, sharp-witted local veterinarian Naomi Bloor, inept burglar Tobias Knox) and oddball details and incidents (e.g., a house-trashing perpetrated by “pissed-off swans”). And the swans are a teasing complex image—of beauty, fidelity, mystery, the souls we like to think we possess and the kind of fragility that invites violation.

Vintage Norman, though not as good as The Bird Artist (1994) or The Museum Guard (1998).