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Howard Norman's The Bird Artist, the first book of his Canadian trilogy, begins in 1911. Its narrator, Fabian Vas is a bird artist: He draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay, his remote Newfoundland coastal village home. In the first paragraph of his tale Fabian reveals that he has murdered the village lighthouse keeper, Botho August. Later, he confesses who and what dr Howard Norman's The Bird Artist, the first book of his Canadian trilogy, begins in 1911. Its narrator, Fabian Vas is a bird artist: He draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay, his remote Newfoundland coastal village home. In the first paragraph of his tale Fabian reveals that he has murdered the village lighthouse keeper, Botho August. Later, he confesses who and what drove him to his crime—a measured, profoundly engrossing story of passion, betrayal, guilt, and redemption between men and women. The Bird Artist is a 1994 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.


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Howard Norman's The Bird Artist, the first book of his Canadian trilogy, begins in 1911. Its narrator, Fabian Vas is a bird artist: He draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay, his remote Newfoundland coastal village home. In the first paragraph of his tale Fabian reveals that he has murdered the village lighthouse keeper, Botho August. Later, he confesses who and what dr Howard Norman's The Bird Artist, the first book of his Canadian trilogy, begins in 1911. Its narrator, Fabian Vas is a bird artist: He draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay, his remote Newfoundland coastal village home. In the first paragraph of his tale Fabian reveals that he has murdered the village lighthouse keeper, Botho August. Later, he confesses who and what drove him to his crime—a measured, profoundly engrossing story of passion, betrayal, guilt, and redemption between men and women. The Bird Artist is a 1994 National Book Award Finalist for Fiction.

30 review for The Bird Artist

  1. 5 out of 5

    Will Byrnes

    Howard Norman – image from the NY Times – photo by Emma Norman Storytelling lives here. Set in Newfoundland, the tale centers on Fabian Vas, who, it is clear from a very early age, is a gifted artist with a penchant for drawing birds. In the first paragraph we learn that he murdered a lighthouse keeper. The rest is about getting to that. This is a very engaging read, with interesting, quirky characters in an unusual place, that seems somehow quite familiar, any American small town uprooted and Howard Norman – image from the NY Times – photo by Emma Norman Storytelling lives here. Set in Newfoundland, the tale centers on Fabian Vas, who, it is clear from a very early age, is a gifted artist with a penchant for drawing birds. In the first paragraph we learn that he murdered a lighthouse keeper. The rest is about getting to that. This is a very engaging read, with interesting, quirky characters in an unusual place, that seems somehow quite familiar, any American small town uprooted and dropped on a rocky northern Canadian Atlantic coast and left to simmer for a few generations. His girlfriend, Margaret Handle, might be considered sluttish, and is by some of the characters. Her father is a crusty fellow who delivers mail by boat on rounds that are measured in days not hours. Fabian’s mother carries on an affair while his father is out of town on business. A prudish reverend, an unforgiving long-distance art teacher. All play roles in the unfolding tale. A page turner, with warmth and beauty in the writing. It made me want to seek out more works by this author. The Bird Artist was nominated for the National Book Award

  2. 4 out of 5

    Howard

    The Bird Artist is a mystery, but an unusual one. In most mysteries a crime is committed early in the story (or maybe even before the story begins) and the reader knows that eventually there will be a solution and perhaps even a confession. But this isn’t what happens in The Bird Artist. In fact, the novel employs a plot device popularized by a TV series. Remember "Columbo," which starred the late Peter Falk? Remember how the series utilized what came to be labeled the “inverted detective story” The Bird Artist is a mystery, but an unusual one. In most mysteries a crime is committed early in the story (or maybe even before the story begins) and the reader knows that eventually there will be a solution and perhaps even a confession. But this isn’t what happens in The Bird Artist. In fact, the novel employs a plot device popularized by a TV series. Remember "Columbo," which starred the late Peter Falk? Remember how the series utilized what came to be labeled the “inverted detective story” format? There was never any surprise about what crime was committed or who committed it, because that was revealed at the beginning of the episode. The plot primarily revolved around how Columbo unraveled the mystery and trapped the perpetrator. Here is the opening paragraph of The Bird Artist: (There is no need for a spoiler alert because if you read the book this is the first thing you will read.) My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself. And there you have it. The book begins with a confession and immediately we know there was a murder and we know the identity of both the victim and the murderer. The what and the who questions have been answered. All that remains is the why. And even the answer to that question becomes apparent quite early in the story. This quirky and offbeat novel is set early in the 20th century in, as mentioned above, Witless Bay, Newfoundland. And it is filled with quirky and offbeat characters who have quirky and offbeat names. Fabian Vas and Botho August are introduced in the first paragraph. But it doesn’t stop there. Here are some of my other favorites: Mari-Lyma Fsjkskedjial, Sander Muggah, and Odeon Sloo. Reading the names leads one to wonder if Norman as a child might have been unduly influenced by Dr. Seuss. But maybe not. The most famous book ever written about Newfoundland was the award-winning The Shipping News written by Annie Proulx. Here are my favorite character names in that novel: Tert Card, Nutbeem, Billy Pretty, Wavey Prowse, Beety Buggit, Alvin Yark, Ed Punch, and Diddy Shovel. Perhaps names of this sort are common in that province. Despite the fact that the reader of The Bird Artist knows from the first paragraph that a murder has been committed, there is much humor in the novel. And much of that humor stems from the uniqueness of the characters and their high threshold of tolerance for the eccentricities and foibles of their friends and neighbors. I must confess there were times when I thought, no way, that would never happen or that person would not act or react in that way. That just isn’t logical. But then I would think: I’ve never been to Newfoundland; I don’t know anyone from Newfoundland; I don’t know anyone who has visited Newfoundland; I don’t even know anyone who knows anyone from Newfoundland. Maybe at that time and in that place it would be logical – especially in a place named Witless Bay.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    It seems odd to describe a book about a murderer as lovely, but this novel was a lovely read. I first heard of "The Bird Artist" thanks to Calvin Trillin, who mentioned it as one of his favorite novels. The story is set in Newfoundland in 1911, and this is how the book opens: My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the ligh It seems odd to describe a book about a murderer as lovely, but this novel was a lovely read. I first heard of "The Bird Artist" thanks to Calvin Trillin, who mentioned it as one of his favorite novels. The story is set in Newfoundland in 1911, and this is how the book opens: My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself. This is the kind of novel that drops you into a small town and the location and the people are described so well you feel as if you've lived there for years. I would highly recommend this work of literary fiction, but be prepared to dislike many of the characters — there are few, if any, heroes here. But it's possible to dislike the main characters and still love a book, and that was true for me with "The Bird Artist."

  4. 4 out of 5

    Kelly

    I really do struggle to articulate what I found so compelling about this book. The prose is spare, the characters are like trying to touch someone through a fog, the storytelling is strangely matter-of-fact. And somehow this added up to a book where the pages turned on its own- some individually lovely sentences and Margaret only partially explain it. It might also be the rhythm of it- he started strong and once you start this thing there's no good place to stop. Anyway, I suppose the best way t I really do struggle to articulate what I found so compelling about this book. The prose is spare, the characters are like trying to touch someone through a fog, the storytelling is strangely matter-of-fact. And somehow this added up to a book where the pages turned on its own- some individually lovely sentences and Margaret only partially explain it. It might also be the rhythm of it- he started strong and once you start this thing there's no good place to stop. Anyway, I suppose the best way to see if it will work it's magic is to see if you find yourself as strangely enveloped by the first chapter as I did. If so, it's a good bet you'll stick around for the whole thing.

  5. 5 out of 5

    GoldGato

    There is a latent creepiness about the northeast section of North America (Canada and the U.S.) that seems to bring out the Melvilles and Lovecrafts of the world. Weird. So I place this book within the gothic chapter of the Atlantic, where fog covers treacherous shoals and madness breeds within shuttered homes. There's a reason the sun decides to set in the West, folks. Circa 1910-1911, the protagonist of this story makes a living by selling his own bird illustrations while living in a remote There is a latent creepiness about the northeast section of North America (Canada and the U.S.) that seems to bring out the Melvilles and Lovecrafts of the world. Weird. So I place this book within the gothic chapter of the Atlantic, where fog covers treacherous shoals and madness breeds within shuttered homes. There's a reason the sun decides to set in the West, folks. Circa 1910-1911, the protagonist of this story makes a living by selling his own bird illustrations while living in a remote village of the Newfoundland territory (still governed by Britain). He lives with his parents, who don't really seem to be "one", and he sleeps with the local slag. He introduces us to the Witless Bay villagers, who meet the hardness of isolated life with their own peculiarities. Within the first paragraph of the story, we know the main character has killed someone, so the rest of the book is there to explain the why. The writing was enjoyable and it was interesting to read about the nutbuckets on that side of the world. My issue is that I simply had no connection to Fabian Vas, the narrator. He doesn't have any get-up-and-go of his own, allowing others to make decisions for him. Even Hamlet had a plan, but not this guy. Drove me crazy. Instead, I looked forward to the descriptions of the birds and the villagers. Perhaps, the vastness of the cold North makes it difficult to exceed one's limitations. Again, nice writing and it did make me want to see Newfoundland. But, but, but...fortress of solitude. Book Season = Winter (icy waves)

  6. 5 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    The Bird Artist Such a different, yet compelling story, set before World War I in an isolated part of Canada, Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Fabian, grows up here, a place where everyone knows everyone else, where gossip is spread almost instantaneously, where it takes over a month a get a reply to a letter.    The novel starts with Fabian admitting to having killed someone, but this is so much more than a murder mystery. It is also a coming of age story, a story where the setting and Fabian's love fo The Bird Artist Such a different, yet compelling story, set before World War I in an isolated part of Canada, Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Fabian, grows up here, a place where everyone knows everyone else, where gossip is spread almost instantaneously, where it takes over a month a get a reply to a letter.    The novel starts with Fabian admitting to having killed someone, but this is so much more than a murder mystery. It is also a coming of age story, a story where the setting and Fabian's love for birds and the drawing of them, is a huge part of Fabian's life.    I loved the clean and clear prose, the characters names are so quirky, the story drew me in, quietly and slowly.  I became immersed in this island and the lives of it's inhabitants. I absolutely adored the character of Margaret, she does and sees things in her own way which is hard to do on a small island.  Also loved all the descriptions of the birds and I did  look up several of these birds to see what they looked like. It was just an added bonus to this quiet but satisfying read.    

  7. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

    It’s surely one of the greatest opening paragraphs ever: “My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.” I so admire books that give up their secrets at the very start yet hook you in and keep you reading with interest all the way through. S It’s surely one of the greatest opening paragraphs ever: “My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.” I so admire books that give up their secrets at the very start yet hook you in and keep you reading with interest all the way through. Set largely between 1911 and 1913, this is the story of coffee-addicted Fabian and his development as an artist under the long-distance epistolary tutelage of Isaac Sprague; his arranged marriage versus his love for unconventional Margaret Handle; his divided loyalties to his father Orkney and his mother Alaric, who had an affair with Botho August; and his attempt at redemption by depicting the town’s history and the murder itself (as in the cover image) in a large mural on the church wall. I loved the small-town feel and the all-too-real characters with quirky names. Norman is an underrated author well worth reading.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from start to finish, so much so that I must soon read The Museum Guard by the same author. It's the dialogue that grabs you. The banter. I wish I could come with such replies when talking - light and piercing at the same time. I enjoyed reading about Newfoundland. Get out your atlas so you can find the islands, bays, coves mentioned. And the birds. It is terribly fun to look those up too so you know exactly what the narrator is speaking of. Marvelous characters. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from start to finish, so much so that I must soon read The Museum Guard by the same author. It's the dialogue that grabs you. The banter. I wish I could come with such replies when talking - light and piercing at the same time. I enjoyed reading about Newfoundland. Get out your atlas so you can find the islands, bays, coves mentioned. And the birds. It is terribly fun to look those up too so you know exactly what the narrator is speaking of. Marvelous characters. i fell for Margaret Handle who eats the "old maid" from the deck of cards. And the names - marvelous names. Read this book.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Connie G

    Fabian Vas, the narrator, introduces himself in the beginning of the book: "I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself." In the story that follows, Fabian reflects back on the events that led up to the murder. Fabian lives in the isolated village of Witless Bay on the eastern coast of Newfoundland in the early 20th Century. It is so remote that it takes a month for a letter t Fabian Vas, the narrator, introduces himself in the beginning of the book: "I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself." In the story that follows, Fabian reflects back on the events that led up to the murder. Fabian lives in the isolated village of Witless Bay on the eastern coast of Newfoundland in the early 20th Century. It is so remote that it takes a month for a letter to be delivered by mail boat. There are frequent mentions of waiting for letters, especially from his correspondance art teacher, that increase the sense of isolation. Everybody seems to know everyone else's business in Witless Bay. There is a sense of comfort in the known for some of the characters, but a desire for the thrill of the unknown (outside Witless Bay) for others. Fabian is a talented bird artist who supplements his income by working on boats. He is sleeping with Margaret, a heavy drinking, intelligent, reckless woman who loves him. But his mother hopes to keep him away form Margaret by developing plans for him to marry a distant relative that he's never met. As the story progresses, the reasons for the murder of the lighthouse keeper are revealed. The book is a coming-of-age story as well as the story of a murder. The book has a marvelous sense of place, and some interesting, unusual characters. I was glad that I had visited Witless Bay.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Gonzalez

    “Birds . . . and the making of a bird on the page is the logic of my heart. And yours?” So Isaac Sprague, bird artist, writes to his student, Fabian Vas, the narrator of Howard Norman’s acclaimed novel. Life in The Bird Artist follows its own logic, and this constitutes one of the chief delights of the novel. Early in the narrative, Fabian tells of a time when his childhood friend, Margaret Handle, crashes her bike into an old man, sending him over a cliff. It seems clear that the crash was an ac “Birds . . . and the making of a bird on the page is the logic of my heart. And yours?” So Isaac Sprague, bird artist, writes to his student, Fabian Vas, the narrator of Howard Norman’s acclaimed novel. Life in The Bird Artist follows its own logic, and this constitutes one of the chief delights of the novel. Early in the narrative, Fabian tells of a time when his childhood friend, Margaret Handle, crashes her bike into an old man, sending him over a cliff. It seems clear that the crash was an accident, and yet nobody in the room asks the logical question that would settle the matter: how did it happen? Instead, the narrative offers unsettling nudges: “It’s hardly a blind corner,” the constable notes; Margaret has an “untoward mind,” Fabian’s mother says. Years later, Margaret says that she and the victim “collided.” The major events in Witless Bay tend to be collisions of one sort or another, involving people who rarely offer satisfactory explanations for their actions. Instead, we get testimony: testimony in a trial, testimony at a funeral, and if gunshot counts, or the squawking of a lice-ridden parrot, testimony in church. (Not incidentally, the parrot is speaking a dead language). Norman’s characters almost always duck in the clinch, declaiming themselves with statements that are invariably self-evident, incredible, irrelevant, or downright bizarre. When a constable decides to leave some suspects under house arrest unguarded, setting in motion one of the biggest collisions of the novel, he explains himself as follows: “I’ve decided, out of curiosity, mind you, to attend the Guy Fawkes bonfire . . . Much to my chagrin, I can’t find a guard for you, so you’ll be on your own, which I’ve advised myself against.” And off he goes. Faced with a world that refuses to cohere, Fabian finds order only in his bird art, and that, for me, is the most touching aspect of the book. When his fiancé, who meets Fabian five minutes before their arranged wedding, asks him to tell her about himself, Fabian says, “Petrels, they’re rarely found inshore. Though sometimes they come in on a storm and fly overland a day or two. We call them ‘Mother Carey’s Chickens’ in Witless Bay. They get almost tame, some of them. They’ll sit right on your hand. We’ve got Leach’s petrels, dovekies, puffins, razorbills, murres, terns . . .” In Witless Bay, testimony generally fails—messages fail to get through, reasons fail to explain, rationales fail to justify. Yet the characters keep trying. It is almost too fun to see them throw around the idea of redemption late in the book, openly chatting about the novelist’s holy grail, that thing usually buried somewhere deep in the back forty to avoid accusations of dogmatism or, worse, sentimentality. Norman goes there, all right, and the question emerges not only unanswered, but spattered with gunfire. Beautiful. “Bird artists should invoke a bird, feather by feather, not merely copy what we see in the wild,” Sprague tells Fabian. The Bird Artist made me think about the kind of truth we tend to accept as psychologically real: how often, in life, do messages really get through, do reasons truly explain, rationales justify? The Bird Artist is rare fun—funny, complex, a layered composition that amply repays whatever attention it receives.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Jeanette

    This novel speaks of natural isolation- as if all the people are their own little islands. Detached immensely. And all of them, even Fabian, seem to have predestined outcomes. And the routes to that outcome far from ones of their own choices, on top of it. The voice of Fabian is so detached as to seem as if he were a 3rd person, IMHO. It's as if he is speaking "about" events too as looking at them from the outside. Things and people access him, not in reverse. And all the people seem so singular This novel speaks of natural isolation- as if all the people are their own little islands. Detached immensely. And all of them, even Fabian, seem to have predestined outcomes. And the routes to that outcome far from ones of their own choices, on top of it. The voice of Fabian is so detached as to seem as if he were a 3rd person, IMHO. It's as if he is speaking "about" events too as looking at them from the outside. Things and people access him, not in reverse. And all the people seem so singular to themselves as well. Their conversations don't even sound two sided. This all colors this book with a pall for my "enjoyment". Even with the wild sea / lighthouse view- and sweep of the birds that he draws?? Even within all the natural beauty always evident-that detached tone! It was nearly off-putting to me enough to make this a DNF. It's as if they (ALL the characters ) were insulated motive robots with no other paths to plod on. As if they were only following the railroad tracks of their own individuality. And their roles being merely an attached train car ONLY ABLE to follow those plotted destiny rail tracks. People without any reasons of choice for their own actions (no culpability known or acknowledged). All the perpetrators are recorded as if they were victims. As the "bad" was done to them instead of it being in actions that were actually the exact opposite. I did read it all. It's skillful to write this way. No easy task to keep this mood of onus in reverse as he did. Tricky! Too cold for me. And too detached for me to be a fan of this kind of writing.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Pablo Hernandez

    A delightful and quirky story, set in the Newfoundland province of Witless Bay circa 1900, through which flows a tragicomic undercurrent and a humane tenderness of sorts towards its isolated inhabitants; it is finely, empathically written and filled to the brim with memorable (and colourfully named) characters. I enjoyed every minute of it.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Doug

    Imagine getting to know a character by what he says and does and not how he looks. Now imagine a novel opening with a character confessing a murder. If 10 people read this book and were asked afterwards to describe the protagonists, one would have 10 completely different and valid responses. A real fave of mine.

  14. 4 out of 5

    T.N Kaz

    If I could give this book 10 stars I would. Margaret Handle has to be one of the most interesting female characters ever written.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Carla

    "The Bird Artist" was nominated for the National Book Award in 1994; I came across the title recently in a list of new paperback releases. The story is set in a remote village in Newfoundland at the beginning of the 20th century. I thought the stark setting was beautifully evoked and the characters totally believable and interesting as individuals. The plot involves various forms of violence, transgressions, and anguish, but these are mostly recounted in a muted way. I found it a sad and bleak t "The Bird Artist" was nominated for the National Book Award in 1994; I came across the title recently in a list of new paperback releases. The story is set in a remote village in Newfoundland at the beginning of the 20th century. I thought the stark setting was beautifully evoked and the characters totally believable and interesting as individuals. The plot involves various forms of violence, transgressions, and anguish, but these are mostly recounted in a muted way. I found it a sad and bleak tale.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Eleanor

    Quirky is the word that springs to mind about this book. I enjoyed it, though not as much as "The Museum Guard" which I read some years ago and loved. It is set in Newfoundland in the early years of the 20th century in a place called Witless Bay. The first-person narrator, Fabian Vas, is the bird artist of the title. This passion, and the fact that he killed a man (which he tells us in the first paragraph of the book) are the two main things by which he defines himself. The book is his journey t Quirky is the word that springs to mind about this book. I enjoyed it, though not as much as "The Museum Guard" which I read some years ago and loved. It is set in Newfoundland in the early years of the 20th century in a place called Witless Bay. The first-person narrator, Fabian Vas, is the bird artist of the title. This passion, and the fact that he killed a man (which he tells us in the first paragraph of the book) are the two main things by which he defines himself. The book is his journey to and beyond that dramatic event. 3.5 stars.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Juliet

    Scattered, unpleasant, improbable, and lacking any comprehension of its characters or their motivations, this tasteless mess of a novel clunks along to an unneccessarily melodramatic conclusion with the grim concentration of a third-grader practicing the oboe. Don't bother. Scattered, unpleasant, improbable, and lacking any comprehension of its characters or their motivations, this tasteless mess of a novel clunks along to an unneccessarily melodramatic conclusion with the grim concentration of a third-grader practicing the oboe. Don't bother.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    I love reading books set in around Newfoundland and this is no exception. The setting is the early 1900s and revolves around a young man, who is a "bird artist". He is also involved in a murder. There is also adultery and plenty of other drama, to sink your teeth in. Highly recommended. I love reading books set in around Newfoundland and this is no exception. The setting is the early 1900s and revolves around a young man, who is a "bird artist". He is also involved in a murder. There is also adultery and plenty of other drama, to sink your teeth in. Highly recommended.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ronald Wise

    This novel eventually proved to be very captivating. Initially it seemed merely an opportunity to learn about human and avian life on the extreme eastern edge of Canada - in a remote village called Witless Bay on the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland. Even for such a small community, the characters - including the narrator, Fabian Vas - were not easy to know, but with patience and acute observation their true natures slowly emerge to both the reader and narrator. So many aspects of this novel consta This novel eventually proved to be very captivating. Initially it seemed merely an opportunity to learn about human and avian life on the extreme eastern edge of Canada - in a remote village called Witless Bay on the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland. Even for such a small community, the characters - including the narrator, Fabian Vas - were not easy to know, but with patience and acute observation their true natures slowly emerge to both the reader and narrator. So many aspects of this novel constantly reinforced a sense of isolation from the rest of the human civilization. Set in the very beginning of the 20th century, the story predates electronic communications - though one character had a prophetic fascination with Marconi - and the only contact with the civilized world was via a relay of two mail boats to Halifax. The reader is never informed of how many people live in this community, but as the drama developed I was reminded of a small acting troupe putting on a large-cast production with individual actors playing multiple roles. This, however, added to the complexity of the characters - even though one may wear multiple hats, he or she was still the same person that could not be avoided in a population this small. Fabian Vas showed an early interest and talent for illustrating bird life, and in this locale he could spend much of his time on lonely coves observing the birds of the North Atlantic. While not an obsession, this enthusiasm provided a focus and a convenient escape when necessary. Fortunately his childhood friend, Margaret Handle, though determined to challenge convention, helped him to be a social being, and she successfully managed to turn their childhood friendship into an adult relationship. I was left thinking a great deal about the transformation of boyhood to manhood, and the impact of others' expectations of an emerging young man, be they selfish, purely supportive, or a confusing mix of both. This was the first of Howard Norman's "Canada Trilogy", and I've since started the second book, The Museum Guard, with the anticipation that it would be as enjoyable as the first. It would seem, so far, that the books of the "trilogy" may share locale, they are good stand-alone reads.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Chana

    As soon as I opened this book and started reading I wanted to stay in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, in 1900. I almost didn't care about the story, or the story was secondary, as long as I could stay in the setting, it was that relaxing. The birds, the water, the boats, the general store; this setting was a vacation for my tired mind. The characters were quaint and eccentric and mostly likable, except when they weren't of course, I don't claim to understand them. There was a lot going on, drama-wise As soon as I opened this book and started reading I wanted to stay in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, in 1900. I almost didn't care about the story, or the story was secondary, as long as I could stay in the setting, it was that relaxing. The birds, the water, the boats, the general store; this setting was a vacation for my tired mind. The characters were quaint and eccentric and mostly likable, except when they weren't of course, I don't claim to understand them. There was a lot going on, drama-wise, but I found myself just floating along dream-like in Witless Bay and saying, please just let me stay here with you for awhile. The story concerns bird artist Fabian Vas, referred to as "the village idiot" by his girlfriend. He is "witless" sometimes, or maybe just young and confused. His girlfriend is anger and passion, sharp observations and a quick tongue. Murder, adultery, suicide weave their way in and out of the story. The writing was as hypnotic as waves, maybe more so, and I loved it.

  21. 5 out of 5

    John Pappas

    Not awful, but I have no desire to read the other books in the trilogy. Some solid writing in parts, but the characterization is oblique and many characters seem to lack authentic or believable motivations-- they are not uninteresting, but just a bit rudderless. There seems to be a subsubgenre of stories set in Newfoundland, P.E.I. or Nova Scotia (I.e. The Shipping News by Proulx) full of stoic fishermen and stern women. There may be a preacher and a mad woman, or an eccentric protagonist strugg Not awful, but I have no desire to read the other books in the trilogy. Some solid writing in parts, but the characterization is oblique and many characters seem to lack authentic or believable motivations-- they are not uninteresting, but just a bit rudderless. There seems to be a subsubgenre of stories set in Newfoundland, P.E.I. or Nova Scotia (I.e. The Shipping News by Proulx) full of stoic fishermen and stern women. There may be a preacher and a mad woman, or an eccentric protagonist struggling to remain true to him or herself while dealing with the opprobrium or pressure to conform from other villagers. We have all that here, but nothing much new. Eh.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Stacia

    Delightful.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Dani Peloquin

    Fabian Vas is the main character and engrossing narrator of this novel. Within his first paragraph is states that, "Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself." From here he tells the story of growing up in a secluded fishing village in the early 1900s. Vas develops his skills as a bird artist which means that he draws birds. He Fabian Vas is the main character and engrossing narrator of this novel. Within his first paragraph is states that, "Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself." From here he tells the story of growing up in a secluded fishing village in the early 1900s. Vas develops his skills as a bird artist which means that he draws birds. He begins a correspondence with a professional bird artist who coaches him on his sketches. However, there is little money in such a field and Vas knows that he will one day have to join his fellow townspeople in fishing and living off of the sea. Vas' personal life escalates when he begins a relationship with his childhood sweetheart Margaret. Though she too has lived in the same fishing village since her birth, the community has not embraced her but instead believe her to be wild and feared. Vas' parents believe these rumors and set to arrange his marriage to his fourth cousin in New Brunswick. For years Vas let his parents and members of the community run his life for him, yet this is all about to end as Vas discovers his own free will. Many have described this novel as a murder mystery or haunting thriller. While I understand these assessments, I do not agree with them. This novel is about more than a murder. It is about life in a small town and the feeling of being cloistered. It is about the expression of self and the importance of finding a personal outlet. It is about the confusing roles within families which can result in betrayal and hurt. In other words, this is no Nancy Drew or Dean Kootz mystery. Norman even takes the mystery out of the story by not only naming the murderer on the first page but by making him the narrator. This instantly changes the novel from being a thriller to being about the consequences of living a life that is forced upon you. In many ways, this novel reminded me of Albert Camus' "The Stranger" in that a murder occurs and the reader has the ability to be fascinated by that act or by the complex character who committed it. Personally, I find the characters in this novel to be superb and far more interesting than the mystery. The writing is fantastic and while I never sympathized with the characters, I was completely engrossed. Even weeks after finishing the novel, the characters still haunt me and beg for a second reading. www.iamliteraryaddicted.blogspot.com

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jeff

    I'm not sure how i feel about this book overall. I read it quickly, and usually that's a sign that i liked it. Then again, i had so many boring hours of sitting in airports, on airplanes, and in Red Cross waiting rooms that i might've been able to finish a much longer book in the same time. It was (sort of) recommended to me by my mother while visiting her in Florida. From the very first, i wondered what was going on with the narrative voice. I think Fabian Vas is just an extremely detached chara I'm not sure how i feel about this book overall. I read it quickly, and usually that's a sign that i liked it. Then again, i had so many boring hours of sitting in airports, on airplanes, and in Red Cross waiting rooms that i might've been able to finish a much longer book in the same time. It was (sort of) recommended to me by my mother while visiting her in Florida. From the very first, i wondered what was going on with the narrative voice. I think Fabian Vas is just an extremely detached character and/or story-teller. And i couldn't quite fathom Margaret Handle's personality either: is she psychotic/sociopathic? "just" a drunk? "just" a harlot? a shrew? a feminist (woman willing to be herself and speak her mind) way before it was possible to be one? I've settled on 3 stars ("i liked it") because ... i liked it and i'm still thinking about it and i'll probably talk with people about it.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Glenda

    That moment when you pull a book from the bookstore shelf, open the cover and find yourself dropping into a chair only to surface from the pages a full chapter in... Well, that is the moment a good book has fallen into your hands. Norman, a National Book Award finalist, begins this tale in 1911. A story written in spare, haunting language, this is the story of Fabian Vas, who draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay. The narrator is haplessly caught up in sudden love and murder in a remote Newf That moment when you pull a book from the bookstore shelf, open the cover and find yourself dropping into a chair only to surface from the pages a full chapter in... Well, that is the moment a good book has fallen into your hands. Norman, a National Book Award finalist, begins this tale in 1911. A story written in spare, haunting language, this is the story of Fabian Vas, who draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay. The narrator is haplessly caught up in sudden love and murder in a remote Newfoundland village. The details of both the historical setting as well as the scientific art of early naturalists richly colors this tale.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Leif Quinlan

    For a book I liked this much, I oddly don't have much to say about it. "The Bird Artist" is clever and uniquely written with skeletal characters that are no less three-dimensional for being so. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anybody I got this from David Bowie's favorites list - I guess it's on to some of the others now: "Hawksmoor," "The Insult," &c. For a book I liked this much, I oddly don't have much to say about it. "The Bird Artist" is clever and uniquely written with skeletal characters that are no less three-dimensional for being so. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anybody I got this from David Bowie's favorites list - I guess it's on to some of the others now: "Hawksmoor," "The Insult," &c.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Frey-Thomas

    I enjoyed Norman's style of prose very much. His clipped dialogue reminds me quite a lot, of Newfoundlanders I've met, and the stifling feel of the tiny village and its inhabitants as he wrote them evoked a real atmosphere, while reading the novel. The protagonist, Fabian Vas, reminds one of an early 20th century Hamlet, in some instances. I enjoyed Norman's style of prose very much. His clipped dialogue reminds me quite a lot, of Newfoundlanders I've met, and the stifling feel of the tiny village and its inhabitants as he wrote them evoked a real atmosphere, while reading the novel. The protagonist, Fabian Vas, reminds one of an early 20th century Hamlet, in some instances.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Ralph Strong

    different for sure

  29. 5 out of 5

    Clara Prizont

    Good and weird. This book was kind of floating...not that there wasn't context but everything about it was so remote and nothing that occurred in the book had any connection to current social issues or historical issues not to mention the setting itself was quite remote, that it felt like a story that wouldn't have been missed had it not been told. More interesting was that the protagonist (who is also narrator) seemed to know that. On the first page of the book he mentions how he is aware and u Good and weird. This book was kind of floating...not that there wasn't context but everything about it was so remote and nothing that occurred in the book had any connection to current social issues or historical issues not to mention the setting itself was quite remote, that it felt like a story that wouldn't have been missed had it not been told. More interesting was that the protagonist (who is also narrator) seemed to know that. On the first page of the book he mentions how he is aware and unconcerned with his own insignificance. The story itself was good and sometimes compellingly written, other times more passive. I'm having a hard time understanding the meta questions of this book. It would make more sense if it had been a true story but it's fiction. An enjoyable read at any rate!

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tracey

    Howard Norman speaks to me. He has a way with story telling that is authentic. He tends to have lived in the communities he uses for the settings of his books. I first read his memoir I Hate To Leave This Beautiful Place. That book reminded me of the wandering that I did in my late teens and early twenties. The Bird Artist is the fictional story of a small town, a murder, and the conventions of the time period. The characters seem familiar because Howard works so hard to breathe life into them.

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