Blasts from the Past: The Bird Artist by Howard Norman (1994)

Cover imageThis 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?

You can find more posts like this here.

14 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: The Bird Artist by Howard Norman (1994)”

  1. I really like the sound of this one Susan… indeed I’ve had The Shipping News on my TBR for donkeys! Will definitely track down a copy… re blasts from the past the ones that seem to linger for me the most are often the memoirs & biographies of either expeditions (usually gone wrong), cultural and criminal injustices. I love fiction but still find well written non-fiction compelling.

    1. Susan Osborne

      That’s interesting, Poppy. Perhaps non-fiction stays in the memory longer than fiction for you. I hope you manage to track a copy of the Norman down.

  2. I enjoyed Norman’s recent novel Next Life Might Be Kinder, and adored his memoir I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place. I have a secondhand copy of The Bird Artist on the shelf. You’ve reassured me that I have a treat in store!

  3. I have had Howard Norman on my list for a while now, but still haven’t gotten to him. The one I own is ‘What Is Left the Daughter’. I’m thinking most of his books might be worth reading. 🙂

    1. Susan Osborne

      I think it may be time for me to try him again after that Museum Guard disappointment. I hope you enjoy his writing when you get there, Naomi.

  4. This is interesting – I have to confess that during the E. Annie Proulx furore I missed Howard Norman entirely – I am glad to have been alerted to him – thank you. On the TBR list he goes…

    1. Susan Osborne

      Fiona the Faber rep – who you may remember – gave me a copy, probably feeling a bit put out by all that Shipping News brouhaha. I hope you manage to get hold of a copy, Kerry.

    1. Susan Osborne

      It’s lovely, Annabel, and I had a hint from Scott Pack on Twitter yesterday that he may be contemplating republishing it in this country.

  5. I love these blog entries Susan, it’s really nice to hear about books that you might have missed the first time around that are still worth coming back to. Not a classic or a bestseller necessarily, but a really good read.

    I’ve probably got a whole host of oldies but goldies on my list, but the one book I keep coming back to is Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai which is funny and clever and brilliant and I love it and it’s coming back into print again so perhaps I’ll post something about it (I have possibly mentioned it once or 50 times). It’s one of the few books I regularly re-read and when I finish it I want to read it again (and watch Seven Samurai on a loop). In fact I’d like to read it right now (but I’m a long way from home and don’t have my copy with me, sadly.)

    1. Susan Osborne

      Thanks, Belinda. I’ve got a few of these on the stocks, now, and have really enjoyed writing them, remembering old times as well as the joy of discovering a great book. Thanks for introducing me to the DeWitt. Not one I know but after such a recommendation it has to go on my list! Lovely to hear that it’s going to be reprinted, too. I’ll keep my eye out for it.

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