Museum Guard

Howard Norman, Author Farrar Straus Giroux $24 (240p) ISBN 978-0-374-21649-8
The worlds of Norman's novels (The Northern Lights; The Bird Artist) are always slightly askew. Like trompe l'oeil paintings, they contain a veil of mystery spread over realistic settings. DeFoe Russet, like most of Norman's other protagonists, is a minimally educated man of simple ambitions, limited horizons and little self-knowledge. An orphan whose parents died in a dirigible crash when he was eight, DeFoe is raised in a Halifax hotel by his incorrigibly alcoholic and amorous Uncle Edward, a guard in the town's art museum. High-school dropout DeFoe becomes a guard there, too, and he goes stoically through his days caring for his perennially derelict and self-destructive uncle. DeFoe also tries to nourish his failing relationship with Imogen Linny, the caretaker at the Jewish cemetery, whose debilitating headaches have increased since she's become obsessed with a painting on loan to the museum. Imogen is convinced that she is the figure in the painting, titled Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, and is determined to travel to that city to play out the drama of ""her soul's estrangement and reconciliation."" But the year is 1938 and Hitler is on the march. Norman again creates eccentric characters whose oddities seem quite natural to others in their community. But the antic charm and mordant humor of his earlier work is somewhat lacking here, and the reader is not so willing to suspend disbelief. Despite a histrionic denouement, the narrative feels muted, and Imogen, in particular, never earns our sympathy. Yet in the end, Norman's message about the disparity between the world of art, which can be captured and controlled, and the real world, with its emotional chaos and physical danger, carries a haunting intensity. (Aug.)
Reviewed on: 06/29/1998
Release date: 07/01/1998
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