All novelists have their favorite themes and settings, but Howard Norman clings to his so tightly that to read him is to practically enter a fugue state. His seven somber novels are all set in Canada, typically near Halifax, Nova Scotia, and turn on offbeat calamities: a unicyclist crashing through a frozen lake (1987′s The Northern Lights), a husband and wife leaping off separate bridges on the same evening (2010′s What Is Left the Daughter), a zeppelin crash (1998′s The Museum Guard), a murdered lighthouse keeper (1994′s The Bird Artist). Norman almost always provides specific dates for these incidents, as if he were the desk sergeant minding literary fiction’s police blotter. Hotels abound, liminal spaces that accommodate affairs and violence. Birds abound too, symbols of elusive freedom or nature’s cruel whims. But what prevails above all in Norman’s work is a mood of intellectual struggle in the face of loss. The Japanese novelist Ryunosuke Akutagawa once wrote, “What good is intelligence if you cannot discover a useful melancholy?” It’s a line Norman has quoted in at least four of his books.
So you come to Norman not to be surprised at his themes but at his variations, and his new novel, Next Life Might Be Kinder, is his most gothic treatment of his familiar obsessions. As the novel opens (dated with customary precision: August 28, 1973), the narrator, Sam, is remembering his late wife, Elizabeth (shot by a bellman in a Halifax hotel). Sam insists that Elizabeth is not gone entirely: She appears to him almost every night, he says, lining up a stack of books on a beach near the carriage house where he lives. Sam’s therapist reasonably figures his client is seeking closure, but “closure” is a word that infuriates Sam. “Where’s the Office of Closure?” he cracks. “Can you write down the address, please? We’ll drop by as soon as we can. Are there many forms to fill out?”
Sam’s emotional fracture — we’re deep in the Land of the Unreliable Narrator here — is underscored by the fragmented form of the book itself. Chapters are clipped and episodic, often no more than a few pages, and the story swings back and forth in time. Here, Sam rants to the therapist about the director making a movie about Elizabeth’s murder; there, he recalls his courtship with Elizabeth and her love for the British writer Marghanita Laski, whose 1953 novel, The Victorian Chaise-longue, was her dissertation subject. Then he’s back to fuming at the “psychopathic thug in a bellman’s uniform” who killed Elizabeth. Sam has not only lost control of his emotions, he’s unwilling to claim a capacity for control. “Something not good was happening with me,” he says, passively.
Norman can be a little on-the-nose about Sam’s despair. Sam is a novelist, and before Elizabeth’s death he wrote scripts for a radio program called Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. (Episode titles: “The Case of the Author Who Lost His Soul” ; “The Case of the Husband Who Didn’t Believe His Wife Was Dead.”) And Sam’s squabbles with his therapist can feel repetitive and claustrophobic. But Norman is echoing the dark-night-in-a-locked-room quality of The Victorian Chaise-longue, a remarkable novella about a tubercular woman who wakes up nearly a century earlier trapped both by her illness and the social mores of the time about motherhood. (The book is out of print in the United States; England’s Persephone Books sells a handsome reissue introduced by P.D. James.) Elizabeth’s dissertation was on what Laski called “the imprimatur of permanent melancholy,” and it’s easy to imagine Norman’s ears pricking up upon reading that line.
Next Life Might Be Kinder doesn’t resolve Sam’s predicament so much as it clarifies the depths of his grief, exposing how intense Kubler-Ross’ second stage of anger can be. When Sam confesses to his own act of violence in a late chapter, we’re meant to wonder how much of it is true and how much of it is a revenge fantasy. How much “closure” does he feel he’s attained by that acting out, and how much are we willing to forgive Sam if what he did was true? “Guilt mercilessly set in,” he writes after the incident, and it’s almost reassuring that he has the capacity for that emotion.
Next Life Might Be Kinder may be the most hallucinatory of Norman’s novels, but that’s still in keeping with his lifelong work as a novelist; he’s always been fascinated by the way our psychological states blur in the face of tragedy. In What Is Left the Daughter, Norman described a killing this way: “things then seemed to happen in a dream — I mean, in the way a dream can tamper with all common sense, make you feel you’re both participating in something and watching at some remove.” Sam experiences a more radical version of this disconnection — bereft, he labors to reimagine and reinvent history. Sam has abdicated his command of his story. But Norman is steady at the wheel.