This is the second in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.
I remember selling Howard Norman’s lyrical The Bird Artist when E. Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News was riding high in the bestseller list – rather like Waterstones apostrophe, the ‘E’ went missing at some point. Howard’s more modestly promoted novel shared the same Newfoundland setting as Proulx’s but made comparatively little impact so here’s my chance to have another try at selling it, although I’m afraid British readers will have to resort to tracking down a second-hand copy as it seems to be out of print here.
The Bird Artist begins in 1911 with Fabian Vas’ confession that he’s murdered the village lighthouse keeper. From an early age, Fabian took refuge from his parents’ unhappy marriage in drawing the birds of Witless Bay at which he is extraordinarily talented and eventually makes his living. Aged fifteen he’s seduced by the hard-drinking, straight-talking Margaret, four years his senior. Determined to tear her son away from the woman who turns out to have been her rival in love, Fabian’s mother arranges for him to marry a distant cousin, taking advantage of her husband’s absence while he earns extra money to pay for the wedding to take up with the lighthouse keeper. On his return, the Witless Bay gossips soon make clear what’s been going on setting the stage for a tale of betrayal and revenge.
Norman’s writing is gorgeously poetic. His descriptions of Fabian’s drawings are exquisite while the bleak Newfoundland landscape is vividly summoned up as a backdrop to this dramatic tale. Witless Bay is stuffed full of eccentric characters, many of whom have a touch of Under Milk Wood about their names. I remember finding Howard’s strange, almost fairy-tale world coupled with the beauty of his writing utterly entrancing. When The Museum Guard was published a few years later I got my hands on it as soon as I could but, sadly, it was no match for The Bird Artist and I haven’t had the heart to try another book by Norman since.
A quick google search tells me that you should be able to pick up a second-hand copy if I’ve convinced you. The jacket I’ve chosen to illustrate this post is from the American edition which suits it far better than my old hardback’s cover.
What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?