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THE MUSEUM GUARD by Howard Norman


by Howard Norman

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-374-21649-5
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The late Bernard Malamud’s resonant maxim “All men are Jews” might have served as subtitle for this harrowing exploration of the collision of personal conscience with historical circumstance: the third novel and best yet from Norman (The Bird Artist, 1994, etc.). Narrator DeFoe Russet, orphaned since the death of his parents in a zeppelin crash, works as a guard in a private museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia, alongside his uncle (and former guardian) Edward, a vigorous middle-aged sensualist who--the more reserved DeFoe realizes--was “living tenfold what I could.” DeFoe’s cramped horizons are broadened by his loving relationship with Imogen Linny, the attractive caretaker of a small Jewish cemetery in Halifax, who envies him his “ennobling” closeness to works of art. But the intimacy of the two dissipates when Imogen (“Imagine”?), fixated on the Dutch painting Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, begins believing that she herself is the woman it portrays. The year is 1938; news of Hitler’s mission to destroy Europe’s Jewry reaches Halifax through “Voice of Conscience” Ovid Lamartine’s Dateline: Europe radio broadcasts. As Imogen prepares to journey “back” to the endangered Old World, ironic parallels of Nazi rampages--even a literal “night of broken glass”--occur in DeFoe’s hitherto sheltered world, and a crime that is simultaneously an act of kindness and a probable death sentence removes him from the orbit of others struggling both to save the “deluded” Imogen and to honor her yearning to “liv[e] a true life,” even though it’s not her own. The long denouement--told in a series of letters sent home by another Nova Scotian stripped of his innocence--hauntingly details the consequences of Imogen’s willed transformation. The concepts of belonging, stewardship, “ennoblement,” “truce,” guilt, and survival are brilliantly dramatized in this breathtakingly readable novel. Wonderful fiction.