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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.
"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
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.
Posted August 31, 2012
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.
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Posted January 27, 2012
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
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