Books: Behind the scenes at the Nova Scotia museum

The Museum Guard

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week