Wednesday, June 10, 2009

'The Museum Guard'

by Howard Norman
Fiction, 1998
Picador, mm pb, 309 p.
Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1938. Orphaned at the age of nine by a Zeppelin crash, DeFoe Russet grew up in a hotel under the care of his magnetic Uncle Edward. Now thirty, DeFoe works with Edward as a guard in Halifax’s three-room Glace Museum. By night, DeFoe spends his time trying to keep the affection of Imogen Linny, the young caretaker of the small Jewish cemetery. When the Dutch painting Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam arrives at the museum, Imogen becomes obsessed and abandons her life in favour of the ennobled one she imagines for her subject – even though being a Jew in Amsterdam is becoming more and more perilous as the clouds of World War II begin to gather.
On the one hand, this is the story of a man, the narrator of the story, DeFoe, going through life being barely tolerated by his girlfriend, constantly ridiculed by his uncle, and feeling a bit lost while trying to figure out his place in the world.
It struck me that Imogen, Miss Delbo, my uncle, even Mr. Connaught, in his own way – certainly Ovid Lamartine – were all somehow beckoned by the world. Whereas I seemed only to be day-to-day enduring it. I felt locked out in the cold. The particular cold of my narrow life; I had not even philosophically ever thought of it as a life, only days lined up behind and in front of me. The narrow alley of cold, of having been born and raised in Halifax, a place I could never, not for the life of me, figure out how to leave.
On the other hand, it’s an exploration of identity, emphasized by one of the character’s tenuous hold on reality. All taking place under the shadow of World War II, with the spread of anti-semitism, and the growing fear in Europe. The common thread holding the strands of the story together is an exhibition of Dutch paintings at the museum of the title, of which DeFoe and his uncle are the guards.

It’s a very intelligent novel, and one of the things I enjoyed about it was the mention of art, and especially people’s reactions to it. I know virtually nothing about art, or technique or art history, but I like reading about it in a fictional setting. In fact, I’ve very much enjoyed other books with a strong art theme, like What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt, and Martin Sloane by Michael Redhill, to name a couple, and this one did remind me of those somewhat. I quite liked the following quote for showing how art is personal and touches us in different ways:
[T]he man and woman moved off slowly to Still Life with Pears and spoke in low, excited tones about it. The man put on eyeglasses, stepped back, and waved his outpointed finger in front of the painting like an orchestra conductor. The woman’s speech was full of exclamation. It was as if they were remembering all the best pears they had ever eaten. It did not change my mind about Still Life with Pears, but at least I would now have the memory of them delighted with the painting.
Ultimately though, I couldn’t relate to any of the characters or understand the reasoning behind their actions. They were all quite self-indulgent, and some of their behaviour and dialogue was almost surreal in its bizarreness, and unbelievable, to me at least. I don’t need to like the characters to enjoy a book, but I still have to be interested in the story as a whole, and I found that while I was curious to know how the events would play out, I didn’t really care. Yet, despite that it did still keep me reading. Overall, I guess I’d say that while I didn’t love it, it did have its moments, and I certainly don’t regret reading it.

A Profile of Howard Norman

Thank you to Sandra for sending me this book and therefore giving me the opportunity to read it. I’d heard of one of the author’s other books, The Bird Artist, but hadn’t read anything by him before, so I was glad for the chance to give it a try.

First sentence: The painting I stole for Imogen Linny, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, arrived to the Glace Museum, here in Halifax, on September 5, 1938.

Buy this book at: Amazon | | | The Book Depository

My Rating: 3/5
(#31 for 2009, What's in a Name Challenge (Building), 2nd Canadian Book Challenge*)

*Maybe it's cheating to count it for the Canadian Book Challenge as the author is American, but he spent several years living in the Canadian North studying regional Indian dialects, and this book is set primarily in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

I’d like to pass the book on to someone else, so it can continue travelling, as it were, and to get another opinion on it. So if you’re interested, just let me know, and I'll draw a name in a couple of weeks. It's actually already been packed up for our move, but I'll send it once it's been unearthed in our new place.

Also reviewed at:
Fresh Ink Books
A Life in Books
Steve Zipp's Book Blog
If you've reviewed this title, let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. As I was reading your review I thought this book doesn't sound familiar at all did I not read it?! Well, no, I thought I had but I've actually read The Haunting of L and The Bird Artist. I liked those books so I'll have to give this one a go. I also like the subject of art in books so I think I'll like that aspect as well!

  2. This sounds like an interesting novel, Nat. The time period especially intrigues me. I am not sure how I would feel about this one. I know your opinion is just that, an opinion, but I wonder if I wouldn't feel the same way in the end. I'll have to look into this one further to see if it would be something I'd want to read.

  3. Good luck with your move. We are trying to plan a vacation to Nova Scotia in the fall and when I visit a new place I always like to read some novels set in that location. You have recently mentioned two set in Nova Scotia which sound interesting. Have you read any others set in Nova Scotia that you recommend?

  4. I'd love to throw my name in the hat if it isn't too much trouble to ship overseas.

    I know what you mean about not being able to relate to the characters but at least needing to be interested in the story. I have been thinking a lot lately about what makes a story compelling to each individual (LOL! Not sure there's an answer to that). I took a few art history classes in college and enjoyed them, but still feel like I know so little. And well, Cananda always interests me. :) (I lived in Toronto when I was little--what part are you from?).

  5. Iliana - LOL. I've done that before, thinking I'd read a book when it was actually a different one. I've heard good things about The Bird Artist so I'll have to give that one a try sometime.

    Wendy - I really wanted to like this one more than I did. Oh well, we can't love them all I suppose.

    Moo - I've been trying to think of other books set in Nova Scotia but nothing comes to mind right now, sorry. I hope you have a wonderful vacation! We visited NS when I was a kid. I don't remember much about it except that it was a good trip. :)

    Trish - The book if yours if you'd still like it.

    I'm not sure there's an answer to that either, about what makes a story compelling to one person but not to another. ;)

    I didn't realize you'd lived in Canada when you were little! I grew up in a small town in Manitoba, then when I was 14 we moved to Victoria, BC. I've actually never been to Toronto, if you can believe it!

  6. Toronto is a great great city, but from what I can gather very different from Victoria. I've only been to Victoria once and fell in love, but I guess it's the same distinction between East and West coast in the states--Toronto a little more fast-paced and Victoria a little more laid back? Maybe I'm just speculating. :) Anyway, I only lived in Toronto for 7 years, but since my dad is Canadian I still count myself as half.

    Thank you so much for the book!

  7. Trish - Our long-term plan is to move to Canada in a few years and it'll probably be to either Vancouver or Toronto or thereabouts, as that'll probably be the best in terms of H finding an IT-related job. But regardless, I'd like to at least visit Toronto someday.

    Victoria is indeed quite laid back and with a slower pace. I don't mind visiting but at this point in my life anyway, I can't picture myself living there. It does have some great views though and I miss being near the ocean.

    And you're welcome! I haven't unearthed the book yet but I'll let you know once I've posted it.

  8. Too bad you couldn't identify with the characters. Other than that, it sounds really good. I hope it's okay that I linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  9. Anna - I wish I could've identified with the characters too, but it was still an interesting read. I don't regret the time spent on it. And no problem at all about linking to the review on your site. Thanks for letting me know.


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