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.
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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.