“My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard 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 murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.”
The opening of Howard Norman’s book, The Bird Artist, a 1994 National Book Award finalist, captured me long ago and has not let go. The story is about remoteness, community and the impact one person can have on it all. It is a story about a single action amidst a tight-knit way of life that threatens to destroy and create all at the same time. And it is about birds.
Norman writes with clarity in a first person narrative I believe is the only way this story could have been told. Its precision and directness display a nuance of rhythm, and the story is pretty much the way I imagine life is lived in the outer reaches of Whitless Bay, Newfoundland.
In the beginning, there is a murder. Then all of the trappings that led up to the lighthouse keeper’s demise walk amongst the pages that follow, like that of a wave that crests, falls and recedes. Everything is revealed as the covers are pulled back: stark, fragile and luminescent in emotion. The act itself is only the beginning; the emotions drive this story and the place does not let you forget it.
A son’s fury, a mother’s unrelenting passions fueled by desire and loneliness, a father’s jealousy, a confession, profound forgiveness and the people. The residents of Witless Bay watch, wait, deliberate, and change their minds on an almost-daily basis. The mood of the book changes like the tides but moves forward in an engrossing story of passion, betrayal, and guilt imbued in the redemptive power of forgiveness.
The major characters are evocative. Margaret, older than Fabian, knows she will have him when they are teenagers. She is cunning, precise in her work and constantly exudes an air of arousal. There is Fabian’s mother Alaric, a restless soul, his father Orkney, a carpenter, a bird hunter and a man always with a purpose. And there is Botho August, the lighthouse keeper, bringing all of them together in a calamitous instant that is life-changing for them all.
As with many of Norman’s novels, the minor characters begin small, but, throughout the story, loom large as their impact on Fabian stretches until it almost breaks. There is the librarian who gives Fabian his first set of paints and paper, Kelb the constable who walks a fine and sometimes comical line of justice, and the very old Helen Twombley, who after requesting the lighthouse light to be snuffed out, rows herself out and to her death.
Fabian Vas continues to draw and paint while surrounded by all of this. The characters are nestled within the harsh, rainy, and unforgiving coast of Newfoundland and the elements are as important a character as all of the others. The weather can shake one awake, lull another to sleep and even push one to the edge. But the people remain tethered to the story as they are to the piece of land where they live, in their homes, on the dock or walking past the lighthouse, whispering about secrets and living with them every day.
“God gave me a small talent to help clarify my world,” says Fabian in a time of angst. He will use that small talent for something much bigger than himself, eventually capturing it all in a large mural he is commissioned to paint. All of what he sees and feels, all the people around him and the place itself are captured in paint, and at the same time he comes to terms with himself.
Norman has written many books since this one, which at the time became his first book in an eventual Canadian trilogy. To date I have read all of Norman’s works and consider them a testament to the power and impact well-crafted stories can have on someone and how moving the setting or its own sense of place, can be for a reader. This story is both solid and fragile. The land, water and the words that inhabit it all are of solid footing. The people, the characters and their voice, though steadfast in determination, are fragile like nature itself.
Picador, 1994, Softcover, $13.00