Tag Archives: The Bird Artist

Six Degrees of Separation – from A Christmas Carol to The Bird Artist

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.


This month we’re starting, appropriately enough, with Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol which is about generosity of spirit. I’m all for that but I’m still a bit bah humbug about Christmas after so many years in bookselling which left me a wee bit cynical about the whole thing.

Patricia Highsmith’s Carol was first published with the title The Price of Salt and renamed for the film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. It’s the semi-autobiographical story of a tragic love affair. I’ve yet to read the book but the film was superb.

Jill Dawson’s The Crime Writer is an homage to Highsmith, a brilliant piece of literary fan fiction. She takes the writer’s time at Bridge Cottage in Suffolk and weaves it into a story which constantly pulls the rug from under her readers’ feet.

Dawson often tells the stories of real people in her fiction. Sean Michaels takes the same tack in Us, Conductors, his fictionalised story of the inventor of the theremin, a weird and wonderful musical instrument. If you want to hear it, pop over to YouTube where you’ll find a demonstration by Leon Theremin the subject of Michaels’ book.

Much to my surprise I read another novel about the theremin, shortly after Us, Conductors. Tracy Farr’s The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt tells the story of a fictional virtuoso theremin player and has a cameo from its inventor.

Continuing the musical instrument theme, Annie Proulx’ Accordion Crimes tells the story of immigration through the accordion, an instrument dear to many nations’ hearts so it seems. I like the idea of this very much but learned – and have since forgotten – far more about accordions than I ever wanted to know.

Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News is set on Newfoundland as is Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist which was published around the same time as Proulx’ bestseller in the UK. I enjoyed The Shipping News but much preferred Howard’s lyrical, poetic novel, stuffed full of eccentric characters

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a nineteenth-century tale of Christmas cheer (eventually) set in London to a tale of betrayal and revenge in Newfoundland. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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?