The Bird Artist: A Novel [NOOK Book]


Howard Norman's The Bird Artist, the first book of his Canadian trilogy, begins in 1911. Its narrator, Fabian Vas is a bird artist: He draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay, his remote Newfoundland coastal village home. In the first paragraph of his tale Fabian reveals that he has murdered the village lighthouse keeper, Botho August. Later, he confesses who and what drove him to his crime--a measured, ...
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The Bird Artist: A Novel

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Howard Norman's The Bird Artist, the first book of his Canadian trilogy, begins in 1911. Its narrator, Fabian Vas is a bird artist: He draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay, his remote Newfoundland coastal village home. In the first paragraph of his tale Fabian reveals that he has murdered the village lighthouse keeper, Botho August. Later, he confesses who and what drove him to his crime--a measured, profoundly engrossing story of passion, betrayal, guilt, and redemption between men and women.

The Bird Artist is a 1994 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

This 1994 National Book Award finalist tells the story of Fabian Vas, a bird artist, who draws and paints the birds of his remote Newfoundland coastal village home. His confession that he has murdered the lighthouse keeper begins a measured, profoundly engrossing tale of passion, betrayal, guilt, and retribution.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Northern landscapes are definitely writer Norman's territory; in Northern Lights and now in this enchanting second novel, he simultaneously evokes the region's harsh weather and terrain and invests it with magical possibilities. There is a wonderful inverse relationship between a setting where life is reduced to essentials and people are unsophisticated and stoic, and the exotic aura his fiction radiates. It's as though Norman has accepted a challenge to wring beauty out of stone and eloquence out of simplicity. This tale of passion, murder and fate is set in 1911 in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, a bleak and isolated community whose citizens are capable of grim retribution and astonishing acts of compassion. In a spare but elegant narrative, Fabian Bass tells us on the novel's first page that he is a bird artist, and that he murdered the lighthouse keeper Botho August. Two irresistible sexual attractions have propelled the 20-year-old Fabian to his desperate act: his love for spirited, eccentric Margaret Handle, which his parents have sought to thwart because she is an alcoholic and older than he; and his mother's flagrant, unrepentant adultery with August as soon as her husband sets off on a long bird-hunting expedition, the proceeds of which are planned to finance Fabian's arranged marriage with a distant cousin he has never met. The narrative sings with tension as events move toward the murder, yet it sparkles with antic humor. Set pieces abound: the comically awkward scene in which the betrothed couple meet for the first time, wed and acrimoniously part; the mad hilarity of the murder hearing as a quixotic, compassionate constable and a fatuous preacher engage in antiphonal debate, with the village elders comprising a Greek chorus. Other scenes have a painterly glow: villagers in small boats keep a nightlong vigil on the fog-swathed ocean, waiting to find the body of a suicidal woman. The intriguing story lurches to an unforeseen climax; its haunting aftermath sets Fabian physically free and emotionally transforms him. At the end, he is both bereft of family and blessed with love, but he has been stunned by the ironies of life and the capriciousness of fate. If he has learned anything, it's to follow his ``heart's logic,'' which drew him to drawing birds; this is, he realizes ``a small gift to help me clarify the world.'' And in weaving his compelling tale, Norman convinces you that human nature is a perennially absorbing puzzle, and that the hands of an accomplished writer can worry the solutions in fresh, surprising and altogether memorable ways. Fabian describes the work of his teacher as ``graceful and transcendent.'' So is this novel. Movie rights to Arne Glimscher Productions; major ad/promo; author tour. (July)
Library Journal
Fabian, son of Alaric and Orkney Vas, has spent his entire life in remote Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Looking back on his life, he decides that he has distinguished himself in only two ways: as a modestly successful artist whose illustrations graced the covers of Bird Lore magazine and as the murderer of the local lighthouse keeper, Botho August. The murder was the result of excessive coffee consumption combined with the stress brought on by his parents' plan to force him into an arranged marriage with a cousin he had never seen; this in turn would keep him from his hard-drinking girlfriend. Norman staked out the desolate reaches of northern Canada as his fictional domain in 1987 National Book Award nominee The Northern Lights. In contrast, this new book combines colorful backwoods eccentrics and gothic melodrama that strongly resembles the work of film director David Lynch. Recommended for most fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 3/1/94.]-Edward B. St. John, Loyola Law Sch. Lib., Los Angeles
Zom Zoms
"My God, some courtships are more difficult than others, aren't they?" So asks one of the characters rhetorically toward the end of Howard Norman's latest novel. This unconventional love story, set in remotest Newfoundland, is narrated by Fabian Vas, a java junkie with a talent for rendering the image of birds on paper--he is "The Bird Artist". Vas' tale unwinds through the domestic drama of his parents, Orkney and Alaric, whose marriage is seduced by adultery, and through the story of a bank-robbing uncle, Bassie. Bassie is more myth than flesh, but when he finally materializes, it is with an important message. Then there is Botho August, whom Fabian Vas murders, and Margaret Handle, Fabian's great love, who has weaknesses for whiskey, bike riding and sex (not in that order). She anchors this northern story with her crazy wisdom. Filled with unexpected characters, this novel works its magic subtly; one thinks of Ingmar Bergman but also of David Lynch. A good story to read on a warm spring day while birds shadow the pages.
Richard Eder
A classic story....All that is splendid and spectacular in the book is simply light, magically employed to seek out what is real. -- Los Angeles Times Book Review
From the Publisher
"A classic story . . . All that is splendid and spectacular in the book is simply light, magically employed to seek out what is real." —Richard Eder, The Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Bewitching . . . glows like a night light in the reader's mind." —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

"Completely original and compelling . . . written with great intelligence, wit and clarity." —Anne Whitehouse, The Boston Sunday Globe

"[The Bird Artist] combines colorful backwoods eccentrics and gothic melodrama that strongly resembles the work of film director David Lynch." —Edward B. St. John, Library Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374706272
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 4/1/2007
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 289
  • Sales rank: 243,858
  • File size: 217 KB

Meet the Author

Howard Norman is also a National Book Award finalist for The Northern Lights. His other works include The Museum Guard, The Chauffeur, a collection of stories, and The Haunting of L., his most recent novel. He received a Lannan Award in fiction. He resides in Vermont and Washington D.C.
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Table of Contents

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Reading Group Guide

"My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have beard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I urdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself."

With its first paragraph, The Bird Artist announces its central themes. Set in a tiny coastal town, The Bird Artist addresses universal concerns: the safety of the known versus the attraction of the unknown, the redemptive potential of creative expression, and the transfiguring -- perhaps damaging -- power of the human heart.

In developing these themes, Norman's prose reflects the unique landscape of Witless Bay: spare and beautiful, with stark emotion jutting out like cliffs above the sea. This guide was designed to illuminate your exploration of Norman's landscape, and we hope that it allows you to venture out into further discussion and study of this remarkable novel.

Discussion Questions:
1. Toward the end of The Bird Artist Fabian paints a mural on the church wall depicting not only the physical aspects of Witless Bay, but also representations of its residents and recent events. How is Fabian's narration of his story similar to the mural he paints?

2. Howard Norman spent time in an Inuit whale-hunting community in Greenland. The Bird Artist opens with the following epigraph: "Suddenly, with extreme violence, he felt himself seized by the desire to be, rain or no rain, at any price, in the midst of the valleys: alone" (Giorgio Bassani, The Heron). What role does the theme of isolation, both geographic and emotional, play in Norman's novel?

3. Howard Norman has said that he originally wrote The Bird Artist because of Margaret Handle -- that "she puppeteers many things in the book." He also "tried to develop landscape as a character." What do Margaret and the landscape of Witless Bay have in common, and how do they shape and affect the book's events?

4. The final chapter of The Bird Artist comments on the etiquette of correspondence: "A man sends a letter, a man expects a reply." This chapter also contains a lengthy letter from Orkney to Fabian. What role do letters, and mail, play in the book? Which characters write letters, and which do not? What purpose (purposes) does writing play in this narrative?

5. On page 163, Margaret remembers a song her mother sang: "There's no love/true as the love/that dies untold," and tells Fabian that "It means, once a third person -- outside the couple in love -- knows a bout the love, it's diminished somehow." How does her interpretation relate to the novel's events? Could the song have a different meaning?

6. Some critics found mythic qualities in The Bird Artist. If a myth is "traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon," what does Fabian's story explain or unfold? How does it pertain to the world beyond Witless Bay?

7. At his trial, Fabian recalls, "I saw Bevel Cabot, Miriam Auster, Giles La Cotte, Ruth Henley, Olive Perrault. Toward the back were Elmer Wyatt, Peter Kieley, Patrick Flood holding his son Colin, Seamus Doyle." How does the community play a role in Fabian's crime and punishment? Although we never "meet" these characters, what is their significance here? What other writers have used a similar device to convey a group's identity and role?

8. In saving Alaric's life, Enoch warns her against straying too far away from her known village. And yet, the novel also presents the unknown, Halifax, for example, as an exciting place of opportunity. Which view does the book, as a whole, support? Safety or limitlessness? The comfort of the familiar lighthouse or the opportunity of the vast ocean?

9. Norman's protagonists, at various points in the book, commit murder and adultery, lie and steal. Does The Bird Artist condone, or even admire, such behavior? What stance does the novel take on religion and the church? Is there religious imagery in Fabian's mural? In the text as a whole?

10. The narrator, Fabian Vas, introduces himself immediately as a bird artist. What is the role of the artist in this book? How dose it relate to Fabian's position as narrator, or storyteller?

About the Author:

Howard Norman grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After graduating from Western Michigan University, he moved to Canada to work as a writer and researcher, with a special interest in the country's indigenous Indian tribes. He is familiar with several Inuit and Algonquin dialects, and his published translations of northern folklore include Where the Chill Came From, How the Glooskap Outwits the Ice Giants (a children's book), and an anthology, Northern Tales, which he selected and edited.

In 1977, Norman first encountered the eastern seaboard of Newfoundland, and learned of a local artist who, at the turn of the century, had committed a murder. Armed with a time, a place, and an event, Norman pent the years that followed thinking about the story that would become The Bird Artist. In the meantime, he wrote his first novel, The Northern Lights, which was nominated for the 1987 National Book Award, and a collection of short stories, Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad.

Howard Norman's book have been translated into twelve languages.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 31, 2012

    A Rare Bird....Story!

    Quirky isolated characters inhabit this book. Do their quirks result in the isolation, or visa versa, or do they feed on each other. Many suprises and maybe twist or two, including unpredictable young love. Not your usual fair, but quite interesting.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 27, 2012

    For the Birds

    I must be missing something. This book has actually won awards and received favorable reviews from people who are paid good money for their opinions. I, by contrast, found it largely bleak and tedious. In particular, I was mystified by the emotional desert in which these characters lived. Was the story meant to be ironic, or do Newfoundland winters just freeze life in strange ways? -- catwak

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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