Books: Behind the scenes at the Nova Scotia museum
Sunday 28 February 1999
by Howard Norman Picador pounds 12.99
The simple is more intense than the elaborate, the embellished less arresting than the raw. Believe this and you'll be entranced by Howard Norman's deceptively monochrome new novel, . Continuing the theme of his last work, The Bird Artist, Norman examines the way in which visual imagery transcends the frequent speciousness of words, and it is a subject in which the novel quite concretely colludes, its language deliberately focused on portraying scenes crisply rather than layering them with ambiguities.
Norman's story is set in Nova Scotia in 1938. Its key characters are the custodians of a three-room small town museum: the novice guard DeFoe, his uncle and fellow guard Edward, their employers and co-workers. Their world seems to be defined by narrow preoccupations; they take their ideas from radio shows, their artistic tastes from the straitened stock of what's available. Yet each of the characters nurtures the germ of an obsession, and their horizons are coloured by the imminence of war - a war from which they are saved by an accident of geography, but in the horror of which they are embroiled by an accident of race.
DeFoe, the narrator, brought up by his uncle following his parents' death in a zeppelin accident, has always wanted for female companionship. When he meets Imogen, the caretaker of the local Jewish cemetery, he quickly grows attached to her. Her appeal, however, lies in her selfish sensibility, and DeFoe's affection meets with a far from generous response. Imogen is altogether more interested in a collection of Dutch paintings which hangs in the museum, and she develops a morbid fascination with a picture entitled Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, in which she discovers the lineaments of a previously unimagined personal destiny. The picture becomes a kind of magic prop in the couple's relationship - not a catalyst, but a scaffold upon which their different desires entwine.
The emotional territory is mapped out in understated tones. At times the prose can be ungainly, but for the most part its spareness is the mark of honesty. Less convincing is the historical detail. The narrative has the quality of testimony, and it therefore tends to move towards a mythic dimension; but this is a trait which blurs the contours of plausibility, as the niceties of history are sacrificed to the myth's machine. I have serious doubts, for instance, that in 1938 a man nearing 60 (as DeFoe's uncle is) would have used the word "shithead" or an expression like "he couldn't get his pecker up". But Uncle Edward is a necessary blot on the novel's landscape, and his vices serve to counterpoint the composed frailties of Imogen and DeFoe. As the inequality of these two characters' aspirations increases the emotional stakes rise, and the narrative accelerates.
It doesn't at this point demand a great leap of the imagination to see where the story is headed. The magnetism of creative genius, the reciprocity whereby if art imitates life, life can also imitate art, the urgent appeal of Elsewhere: these are all givens of the novel's drama. Yet Norman is a writer of almost insidious subtlety; preacherly generalisation and sensational histrionics are spurned in favour of something much less flagrantly impressive, and this resistance to grand gesture is justified by a denouement in which the twist is not the expected twist. Like another, greater novel which approaches the Holocaust from an oblique angle, D M Thomas's The White Hotel, Norman's fiction raises itself to a laceratingly shrill emotional pitch. The final epistolary stages are wholly compelling, and the all but casual build-up of narrative tension acquits itself in an ending which is daringly assured.
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