Kirkus Reviews QR Code


A Memoir of Myth and Uncommon Friendship in the Arctic

by Howard Norman

Pub Date: Feb. 14th, 2005
ISBN: 0-86547-680-2
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A sometimes sad but seductive collage of memories of two months spent with a Japanese woman and an Inuit elder in Canada’s far north.

In the late summer of 1977, Norman (The Bird Artist, 1994, etc.), who had not then stepped into his novelist’s shoes, went to a town on Hudson Bay in the employ of an American museum to transcribe and translate narratives of the Noah stories. By coincidence, Helen Tanizaki was also there, working on the same stories with the same elder, Mark Nuqac. Tanizaki and Norman were two sides of a coin. She was a sensitive, accomplished ethnographer and translator: introspective, ardent, lucid. He was a befuddled neophyte: agitated, anxious, without poise. Their friendship emerged as they worked to capture and clarify the Noah stories, which were radically different as perceived from the Inuit point of view, on the one hand, and from Norman’s point of view, on the other. Less confusingly, these were stories about the precariousness of life, which reverberated long and hard with the fact that Tanizaki was dying of stomach cancer, and about a stranger in a strange land, which fitted Norman to a T. Now blessed with great poise, Norman twines 11 Noah stories with the landscape of melancholy: his ineptitude, the unforgiving Arctic, the “black butterflies” of Tanizaki’s doom. Though Norman is careful not to get sentimental, something Tanizaki would not have appreciated, readers will find it hard not to fall, as he did, for her talent, her epigrammatic opinions, the freshness of her prayers (“I would like to see / a red phalarope / (please)”) and the elegance of her restraint. Norman may have been in over his head, but he kept his eyes and curiosity open; he engaged, and Tanizaki likely appreciated that very much.

A deep-sounding recovery project of memories new and old, fired by years of reflection.