Bird Artist

Norman, Howard. The Bird Artist. Picador, 1994.

Reason read: August is fly like a bird month… or someone told me.

From the very first page of The Bird Artist, Howard Norman wants to draw you into the story by having his main character, Fabian Vas, nonchalantly admit that he murdered lighthouse keeper Botho August. The hook is why. Why did seemingly quiet and charming Vas kill August? Why does he admit to it so readily and so casually? Norman will drop other mysteries along the way to keep the reader strung along. Like, why is it risky to write about Fabian’s aunt? Fabian lives in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Ir all begins when Fabian befriends town troublemaker Margaret. As a thirteen year old she accidentally killed a man. Soon their relationship blossoms into the “with benefits” type despite his arranged marriage to a distant cousin. Maybe it is a cultural thing, but the curious thing about Fabian is that nothing seems to really faze him. His apprenticeship with bird artist Isaac Sprague is shortlived when Sprague disappears in the spring of 1911. Fabian blames himself for being too much a critic of his mentor’s work. When he is moments away from marrying a complete stranger and being arrested for murder almost at the same time, Fabian shows little emotion. His emotion amounts to getting a little nervous when law enforcement shows up. For all of Fabian’s calm, Margaret is his exact opposite. She was my favorite character. Motherless and meandering, Margaret sets fire to life’s challenges. You end up rooting for their dysfunctional relationship no matter what the cost.

As an aside, how can one person consume 20-30 cups of coffee? Is it normal for a father to talk to his son about sex with his wife?

The other characters:

  • Dalton Gillette: Margaret hit him with her bicycle and he fell to his death. Mitchell Kelb investigated the case.
  • Romeo Gillette: widower; son is Dalton; hosted the Canadian Thanksgiving; recovering from a heart attack; owns a store; town gossip; acts as messenger for the characters under house arrest; bought the murder weapon from Mitchell Kelb.
  • Lambert Charibon: best friend of fathers; has a trout camp; doesn’t dream; supports Fabian’s artistic talents.
  • Cora Holly: Fabian is engaged to her despite being related (she is a distant cousin).
  • Aleric Vas: Fabian’s mother; has a sister named Madeleine; is four years younger than her husband; doesn’t like Margaret; is having an affair with the lighthouse keeper; while under house arrest she convinces Kelb to take her rowing; she broke Orkney’s heart.
  • Orkney Vas: Fabian’s father; hunts birds for a living; is instrumental in Fabian’s murder trial; saddest character in the book.
  • Isaac Sprague: birt artist; mysteriously disappeared in 1910; he was Fabian’s teacher by mail.
  • Madeleine: Fabian’s aunt.
  • Botho August: the murder victim; a man over 6′ tall; slim with blue-gray eyes; good at his job as keeper of the light; he listens to gramaphone records; paid for Margaret’s stockings; keeps to himself.
  • Reverend Sillet: 55 years old; hires Fabian to paint a mural.
  • Margaret Handler: 13 years old at the beginning of the story; dad bought her a bicycle; trades sexual favors with Fabian; four years older than Fabian; lives with her father, Enoch; mother died when she was seven; part Beothuk Indian; drinks a great deal of alcohol and can handle a gun. She was my favorite character.
  • Enoch Handler: carpenter and boat builder; hunter and pilots boats; despises priviledge; of average height, solid build with black hair; has a brother named Sebastian; daughter is Margaret; owns and runs the mailboat; takes Fabian to be married to Cora in Halifax.
  • Mitchell Kelb: constable; short man but in physically good shape; wears glasses; arrested Fabian on his wedding day; appointed representative magistrate at the trial.
  • Boas LaCotte: owns the sawmill; nephew is Giles.
  • Helen Twombly: owns the cold storage shack; is 80 years old in 1911; she is a widower; drowned; had an affair; Fabian paints her as a mermaid on his mural.
  • Uncle Sebastian (Bassie): Orkney’s brother; he was a career bank robber; broke Orkney’s jaw as a kid; Fabian hasn’t seen him since he was seven years old; taller than Orkney.
  • Paulette Bath: town librarian; she is a spirited woman in her late 50s or early 60s; she died when Fabian was 17 years old.
  • Giles LaCotte: owns an apple orchard and sawmill with uncle Boas; present at the trial.
  • Bridget Spivey: waitress at Spivey’s restaurant; short and lithe; in her 50s.
  • Lemuel: cook at Spivey’s; 6’2″ with a pudgy face, blue eyes and brown hair; slovenly with bold humor.
  • Odeon Sloo: new lightkeeper after Botho is murdered.
  • Kira Sloo: new lightkeepers wife.
  • Millie Sloo: new lightkeeper’s daughter.
  • Mami Corbett: makes a fruit cake for the characters under house arrest.
  • Llewellyn Boxer: deputy.
  • Hagerforse: owns the guest house where Fabian and Cora are to be married; in her late 50s.
  • Bevel Cabot: present at the trial
  • Miriam Auster: present at the trial
  • Ruth Henley: present at the trial
  • Olive Perrault: present at the trial
  • Elmer Wyatt: present at the trial
  • Peter Kieley: present at the trial
  • Patrick Flood: present at the trial; spoke at Botho’s funeral;
  • Seamus Doyle: present at the trial
  • John Rut: present at the trial
  • Averell Gray: justice of the peace
  • Alex Quorian: photographer for the wedding
  • Peter Kieley: alerted authorities to the murder of Botho
  • Darwin McKinney: dug Botho’s grave
  • Mekeel Dollard: takes notes at the trial; might be the only one in town to own a photo album (and not Alex Quorian?).
  • Arvin Flint – skipper of the doubting Thomas; former constable
  • Andrew Kieley – child in the church
  • Lucas Wyatt – child in the church
  • Sophie Aster – child in the church
  • Carson Synge – child in the church
  • Emma Shore – child in the church
  • Petrus Dollard – child in the church
  • Sally Barrens – child in the church
  • Marni Corbett – child in the church
  • Arden Corbette – child in the church
  • Philomene Slater – child in the church
  • Chester Parmalee – child in the church

As an aside, I found it shocking that they ate puffins considering my only history with the bird is the conservation effort and subsequent tourist opportunity to see them nest.

Lines I really liked, “The eeriest thing about fate, it seems to me, is how you try to deny it even when it’s teaching you to kiss” (p 11) and “Nowadays, people have to travel to get important memories” (p 35).

Author fact: you would never know Howard Norman was born in Toledo, Ohio.

Book trivia: Bird Artist is the first in a trilogy. This is the only book I am reading for the Challenge.

Nancy said: Pearl said The Bird Artist is on her bookshelf and that she couldn’t imagine traveling to Newfoundland without reading it first. Of the trilogy, Pearl said The Bird Artist was the best. Finally, she included it in her list of books “not necessarily instructive on What Mother Ought Not to Do” (Book Lust p 160).

BookLust Twist: from Book Lust To Go in the chapter called “Newfoundland” (p 153). Bird Artist can also be found in abunch of place in Book Lust. First, in the chapter called “Canadian Fiction” (p 51), then in the chapter called “Mothers and Sons” (p 161), and in the chapter called “100 Good Reads, Decade By Decade (1990s)” (p 179).