The Bird Artist by Howard Norman

What drives people to cheat? What are we looking for when we step outside our relationships and commit adultery?

Is it that we’re lacking something in our current relationship, or that we’re truly unhappy with our spouse? Or maybe it’s more animalistic than that: maybe we’re acting on a biological instinct to increase the chances of our bloodline living on once we’re gone from the earth. I know the answer is different and complex in every situation, but I can’t stop asking myself, why? Why do otherwise decent people engage in selfish, hurtful behavior like adultery? Why did I do it, myself, after my first divorce?

883420These questions kept swirling around in my head after reading The Bird Artist, by Howard Norman. And while the answers I’ve come up with are still unsatisfying, I’m at least grateful for finding a book that encourages self-reflection and honest assessment through rich storytelling.

The novel is set in a small, coastal village in Newfoundland during the early 1900’s.  It hits you hard from page one, as it opens with the narrator, Fabian Vas, confessing his murder of the lighthouse keeper Botho August. While the murder drives the story forward, it is in no way the central theme or the book. Instead, readers become immersed in the Vas family’s struggle to navigate through life as they deal with adultery, familial duty, and passion and betrayal.

Despite its dark undertones, The Bird Artist is a lovely, quick read. The language might be stark, but the storyline is quite romantic and engaging. The main character is, in fact, a burgeoning bird artist who draws and paints shorebirds and corresponds with his taciturn mentor, Isaac Sprague. Fabian struggles to keep living a  quiet, simple life as his parents try to marry him off to a distant cousin. When his father leaves to make money hunting on a nearby island, Fabian’s life crumbles around him. At this point in the book, readers will realize there’s more than one antagonist in the book, a factor that kept me on my toes as a reader and helped keep the story’s pacing quick to the very end.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading his novel, and I think it’s a testament to the strength of the writing that even after finishing reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking about its overarching themes and how they relate to my own life. I can’t wait to read more of Howard Norman’s books, either. Norman is a writer and educator from Michigan who translates Algonquin, Cree, and Inuit folklore. When I stopped to ponder that fact, I realized that over the winter, I picked up at least three books by authors who are also translators: Howard NormanRichard Dauenhauer and dg nanouk okpik. And I can honestly say I loved them  all. Here’s a bit of their work, in case you’re interested:

I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place







As for me, I’m off to write poetry and sip delicious coffee under the midday sun (a rare occurrence in Tacoma in the early spring). Maybe I’ll be able to come up with an explanation for making the mistakes I did when I was younger, or maybe I won’t. I can only hope to learn from it, and to ask for forgiveness not only from the person I hurt, but from myself, as well.

Happy reading, my friends.

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