I have been listening to two unsettling men, Fabian Vas and Wyatt Hillyer. Both seem to filter the violence and passion of their lives through a distance in time and expectation that works oddly against the events they relate. The mismatch is the more effective in that they offer little, if any, analysis of their motives. In some sense, they seem unable to control what they had done, and yet maintain a self-assurance that defies irrationality. They have acted and now they, in their narratives, confess. These are first person narrators and, of course, fictional. Their creator, Howard Norman, has a distinguished career both as a translator of legends and stories of Cree Native Americans and as a novelist, but, as seems to me too often the case, I am belated in reading him. Despite the traditional forms of two of his novels, The Bird Artist and What Is Left the Daughter, he produces uncanny effects, and these are largely the result of narrative voice. (What Is Left the Daughter is cast as a letter to Wyatt’s daughter.) Both books are set in tiny communities of costal Nova Scotia, just before the First World War (The Bird Artist ) and during the Second World Ward (What Is Left the Daughter). These are tales of passion, infidelity, small town pressures, and eccentric characters. The women are exceptionally strong. The books are tied to the sea, to Nova Scotia weather, to fishing, and to stoical acceptance of obligation and loss.
The plot twists are accounts of unexpected and apparently uncharacteristic actions which precipitate events: sudden infidelities, abrupt unions, and obsessive revenge. Fabian commits murder, as he tells us on the first page; Wyatt is an accomplice in a similar act. The exigencies of circumstance appear more understandable than the impetus for action. We see through their eyes as if they were distorted by cataracts. Despite the heady drama, the quotidian remains and is effortlessly realized: fish at every meal, workshop ledgers, scones, a minister’s rhetoric, and bus rides to Halifax. Some folk drink hard, all seem to scrabble for a living, and everyone knows of the others’ lives. Fabian is a competent artist, Wyatt a salvager of flotsam and jetsam. They are both more wrecks than whole. Norman’s world is visionary in the most mundane of senses: his realist fiction depicts times and places that are not exotic so much as ancestral. He tells the tales I might expect to hear from my grandparents, speaking out of their memories from that strange country, the past. To read him is to travel very far away, just there where things are not simpler but different.