Howard Norman, like Paul Auster, is an author I stumbled upon buying used and remaindered books at a discount outlet. I had picked up Norman’s The Museum Guard on one of my forays a while back and enjoyed it, so when I recently came across The Haunting of L I picked it up. I just got around to reading it and once again found myself engrossed in an odd but intriguing story set in the Canadian Northland.
I am not sure exactly how to describe Norman’s style. It is spare and understated, but somehow personal and real. If you are looking for action and fast paced adventure Norman really isn’t for you. But if you enjoy quiet but interesting stories with unique characters and settings told with restrained but artful prose, Norman is worth reading.
The Haunting of L is told from the perspective of Peter Duvett, a young man looking to escape Halifax after the death of his mother. Duvett ends up accepting a assistant position with photographer Vienna Linn in Churchill, Manitoba. Barley settled in, Duvett is seduced by Linn’s wife on her wedding night. The seductress, Kala Murie, fills Duvett in on the ugly facts behind her husband and his new boss. It turns out that Linn has made a living arranging and taking pictures of train accidents for mysterious patron in Europe. Linn is on the run from his patron after a botched job.
Once entwined in this bizarre triangle, Duvett finds himself unable, or perhaps more accurately unwilling, to leave. The story unfolds as the tension escalates between Linn and Duvett as both seek a way out of their current circumstances – Linn seeking financial independence and Duvett seeking freedom to live his life with Kala.
What makes Norman enjoyable to read is the way he brings the reader into the lives of his characters. In some ways they are ordinary people living ordinary lives. And yet in other ways they are caught up in fantastic and bizarre events played out in remarkable settings. In some ways this is a historical novel, capturing a time and place in the past, but the history is not really the focal point. Instead, Norman seems to use these unique settings as a way to focus on things like the role of art, the complex nature of relationships, the power of longing, and the corrosive nature of isolation.
As you can see I have a hard time putting my finger on Norman and his writing. But he is clearly a writer of skill and imagination. If you appreciate finely crafted stories with an odd or eerie sense to them, if you are looking for something different, I would recommend Howard Norman. It may be an acquired taste but it has proved to be a great change of pace for my reading habits.