The Haunting of L. is the third novel of Howard Norman’s Canadian Trilogy, which began with The Bird Artist (1994) and continued with The Museum Guard (1998). In each of these novels, a young man involved in some aspect of the art world is slowly drawn out of his detachment by the love of a woman; in each case, the path of this love is difficult to navigate. The Bird Artist is narrated by Fabian Vas, a young Newfoundland man who specializes in naturalist portraits of birds. Fabian kills a man for his lover, Margaret, and must deal with the legal and moral repercussions of his act. In The Museum Guard, Defoe Russet must steal a painting from his Halifax museum for his lover, Imogen Linney. Twenty-eight-year-old Peter Duvett, the narrator and protagonist of The Haunting of L., is a photographer’s assistant and caption writer who conducts an affair with his employer’s wife.
The themes of detachment and isolation, as well as redemption, are more pronounced in The Haunting of L. than the other novels, and as such it is the fitting capstone to an exceptional literary trilogy. Each of these young narrator-protagonists is in some way incapable of understanding the world and his place in it; in each case, a form of art serves as a metaphor for the isolation of these individuals. Fabian Vas tries to gain some comprehension of his life through his paintings of Newfoundland birds. Defoe Russet’s life is centered almost entirely around the museum he serves. His understanding of the world is not immediate; instead, it is filtered through the minds and talents of the artists whose works he guards. Peter Duvett is perhaps the most isolated and distant of the three. While Vas and Russet commit crimes for the women in their lives, Peter Duvett wrestles again and again with his passivity and inability to act.
Much in the way that a developing picture gradually appears on photographic paper, The Haunting of L. is slow and deliberate in its unveiling of characters and themes. In September, 1926, Peter Duvett leaves his job as a newspaper developer in Halifax to travel to the frozen, remote town of Churchill, Manitoba, to become a photographer’s assistant for Vienna Linn. He arrives on the same day that his employer marries the beautiful Kala Murie; before the wedding night is over, Peter and Kala have begun an affair. Peter is initially a cipher in the novel. He is obviously in retreat from some event, yet the nature of his past and his character are obscure at first. He is given to stepping outside himself at any moment and considering himself as part of a still photograph in need of captioning: “[F]or instance, if I left my raincoat inside on a rainy day, I would immediately think, Man Who Forgot Raincoat Standing on Street.” His detachment from the events of his own life is so profound that even when he stands over the bed of his lover, Kala, he thinks “View of My Employer’s Wife.” Peter wonders why he mentally composes such a caption rather than a more “intimate” one such as “View of Kala Murie Sleeping,” but he does not question his need to view himself, his surroundings, and the people in his life from a distance, as through a camera’s viewfinder.
Kala Murie, Peter’s lover, and her mysterious husband Vienna Linn, his employer, are also characters numbed to their own desires, hopes, and beliefs, separated from their true selves as surely as Peter is. Kala is obsessed with The Unclad Spirit, a nineteenth century book on spirit photography by Georgiana Houghton. (Houghton actually did exist, according to prefatory material by Norman, although her book bore a different title and his rendering of her work is largely fictional). Kala not only studies the book as if it were Holy Writ, but lectures on its presentation of spirit photographs. Spirit photographs are those pictures of groups that also include the spirit of a person no longer living, or what Houghton calls an “uninvited guest.” As Peter puts it, “On the occasion, say, of a wedding, funeral, birthday, family reunion, baptism, no one actually sees or speaks to this person—the person isn’t even vaguely recalled. Yet when the official photograph of the event is developed, there he is, or...