In my discussion of Howard Norman’s latest book Devotion I noted that he was an author whose work I would tend to pick up and read as soon as it was released; or at least as soon as I became aware of it. Having wrote this, it struck me as a good time to go back and catch up on the the books I had not yet read. I happened to have The Northern Lights on the shelf and so bumped it up the TBR pile and read it.
The Northern Lights was Norman’s first novel so it is interesting to go back and see many of the same ideas and themes that populate his later works. The story centers around 14-year-old Noah Krainik who lives with his mother and cousin in Northern Manitoba. Noah, however, spends large chunks of time away from his family farther north with his best friend Pelly Bay. Noah’s father is largely absent from his life and he is forced to try and make sense of the world mostly on his own.
Pelly’s tragic death and the disappearance of Noah’s father set off a series of events that lead to Noah’s mom and cousin moving to Toronto with Noah soon to follow. Noah’s mom Mina ends up working at, and then buying, the movie theater where she worked when she married his father – The Northern Lights of the book’s title. The married owner becomes infatuated with her and when rebuffed turns to drink and increasingly unstable behavior. This behavior causes him to lose, and Mina to acquire, the theater.
The theater, including the Cree Indian family living in the projection room, somehow becomes a unifying place for their family. Noah “comes of age” understanding his responsibility to his family – no matter how dysfunctional. They seem to have found the strength to make a future for themselves.
As in all of his novels, Lights has the sparse prose that somehow captures the harshness and isolation of Northern Canada. It also has the quintessential quirky characters seeking to find their place in the world; to find some equilibrium in an often unbalanced world. As I noted in the review of his most recent work: “What Norman does is allow you to get inside the lives of these characters and see the world through their eyes.” Noah, his mom, his cousin, and even other minor characters have unique voices and perspectives. Norman is able to capture these and yet give the novel his own unifying tone and focus. It is sparse, and sometimes bleak, but it also has a kind and dry sense of humor. There is a sense of hope in that people find ways to carry on and make a life for themselves.
As I have noted before, I will admit that Norman’s style might not be for everyone, but I find it enjoyable. For more on Norman check out this interesting Ploughshares profile which reveals many of the autobiographical aspects of his first novel. Also worth reading is this Boston Review piece that covers Norman’s first four novels.