The Bird Artist by Howard Norman
On my list of books to re-read this year was The Bird Artist by Howard Norman. Published in 1994 The Bird Artist is considered Howard Norman’s breakthrough book.
The novel is set in the early 1900’s in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Home to a bird sanctuary the area is now an easily accessible site for bird watchers and anyone who wants to explore the natural beauty of rural Newfoundland.
Norman Howard is quoted as saying, “To me the Canadian Maritimes is a very compelling region; it's tragic, it's melancholy; it has a long history with the sea; it's elegiac. In the cemeteries, there are so many graves that are empty because the people were lost at sea. I'm comfortable with the disturbing paradoxes and haunting qualities of the area. I'd say I try to maintain a deep level of engagement with that region--always.”
Fabian Vas is the artist. We meet him as a boy, drawing, and watch him develop into a young man obsessed with drawing birds. To this end he establishes a long distance relationship with an artist who teaches bird art and the two correspond for many years - mentor and student. As Fabian develops his skills he begins to sell his paintings to journals. As a bird artist he is able to “invoke a bird, feather by feather, not merely copy what we observe in the wild”. This ability to accentuate what is identifiable in a bird is why Roger Tory Peterson’s bird books are still more popular than identification guides with photographs.
But, it is not Fabian Vas, bird artist, who becomes famous in Witless Bay – it is Fabian Vas, murderer.
Doing some research after re-reading The Bird Artist I discovered there is more truth behind the fiction than I expected. Norman Howard was in Newfoundland in the 1980s doing research for a film, when he saw a watercolour of an ibis, wading in the water, unsigned but dated 1911. He discovered that the artist had been a young man who had indeed been charged with murdering the local lighthouse keeper. He was acquitted and continued to live in the community – and like Fabian Vas published drawings of birds. Howard Norman said he “stopped researching when what I was finding out began to trespass on what I imagined might have taken place."
Howard Norman is a writer who perfectly captures that ‘sense of place’ in his novels. He admits to developing “a place the way you develop a character”. You will believe that Howard Norman’s Newfoundland of 1911 is Newfoundland at that time.
The novel begins with the words “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”. You are caught with those few words - and will remain so for the rest of the novel. Even with the ‘main event’ given away at the start there are many surprises to come - and such magnificent storytelling.