Howard Norman is the author of the highly regarded novel THE NORTHERN LIGHTS (1987). In Norman’s second novel THE BIRD ARTIST, Fabian Vas lives in the remote village of Witless Bay, Newfoundland. As the narrator of the novel, the reader is presented with the matter-of-fact world that Vas inhabits. Because of the harshness of the environment, there is a toughness required of the citizens of Witless Bay. The terrain punishes anyone who is weak of body and/or of spirit. The novel’s action takes place in 1911. Vas does his best to make a living by drawing birds. He has talent, but there are so few people willing to pay money for his art. Vas, though, is more than an illustrator of birds. He admits to having murdered Botho August, the lighthouse keeper. To better understand what drove Vas to commit murder, he relates what previously has transpired in the community of Witless Bay.
Norman writes with a sure hand. There is no pretension in his approach to the story. The characters he has created are gruff, no-nonsense types of people. Margaret Handle is a hard-drinking woman who speaks her mind and passionately loves Fabian Vas. She also has an affair with the lighthouse keeper. Vas’s mother Alaric is another strong-willed female who takes up with the lighthouse keeper when her husband is away for the summer. In this cruel environment, the people seem to act upon their passions without much regard for the consequences. Jealousy and revenge torment Vas as well as other characters in the novel. THE BIRD ARTIST is a wonderfully vital creation. Men and women struggle against a brutal locale, against one another, and against themselves in order to survive with some degree of dignity.