A very promising idea—the phenomenon of “spirit photographs” (in which “uninvited guests” may be seen)—is somewhat clumsily developed in this disappointing final volume of Norman’s Canadian Trilogy (The Bird Artist, 1994; The Museum Guard, 1998).
Narrator Peter Duvett is a young photographer’s assistant whom we first meet in 1927 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, as he lies in bed with his employer Vienna Linn’s wife Kala Murie, herself an artist of sorts, who offers “dramatic performances” attesting to the veracity of photographs in which dead people inexplicably appear alongside living ones. Peter’s narrative ranges backward and forward, focusing on the amoral Linn’s fraudulent doctoring of disaster photographs (disasters that he also “arranges”) created for godlike multimillionaire Englishman Radu Heur, a jaded connoisseur of catastrophes (who never appears). Another narrative strand reaches back to Peter’s childhood, and layers in (in distractingly rapid succession) his father’s accidental death, his mother’s unhappy second marriage and probable murder (still unsolved), and Peter’s frustrated retreat to Manitoba (where he encounters Vienna and Kala, falls in love with the latter, and reluctantly learns their several secrets). Following the failure of another planned disaster, a “verificationist” arrives from London to determine whether Heur will order the duplicitous Linn’s murder, more disasters occur, and the characters who survive them are last seen on shipboard en route to England, just before a final twist that readers will have long since foreseen. Does this sound like Iris Murdoch after a few too many Molsons? Norman doesn’t seem to have decided what he wanted to do with his novel’s rich theme, and fills its pages with often illogically related bizarre incidents. The best things here are the tales of ghostly photographic appearances attributed to the book that’s the slinky Kala’s “bible”: spiritualist Georgiana Houghton’s The Unclad Spirit.
Norman is a lively and imaginative writer, but too much of The Haunting of L. consists, so to speak, of a story that really isn’t there.