Howard Norman is the kind of writer who gives you the bad news up front. Take the opening paragraph of his best-known novel, The Bird Artist (1994):
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 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.
(If you haven’t read The Bird Artist, you should rectify the situation immediately.)
Mr. Norman’s new novel (out last week), Next Life Might Be Kinder*, begins: “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex hotel, she did not leave me.” It’s a bold strategy, to declare in one’s opening sentence the plot points other writers might build toward — but for Mr. Norman, the strategy always works.
Writer Sam Lattimore, Next Life Might Be Kinder‘s narrator, finds himself living in a small cottage hours away from the Essex Hotel, where he and his wife spent the early months — the only months — of their marriage. He’s meeting with a therapist, evading the film director who bought the rights to his tragic story — and the director’s assistant, and seeing his wife on the beach at night. He’s angry, and he’s desperately in love with Elizabeth. As the novel unfolds, Sam recalls how he and Elizabeth fell in love, what their life was like before she died, and the lurking menace of Alphonse Padgett.
Mr. Norman’s writing is, as ever, beautiful. The characters — Sam, Elizabeth, Sam’s new neighbors Cynthia and Philip, Dr. Nissensen the therapist, the unhinged Norwegian film director, even Marghanita Laski, whose work is the subject of Elizabeth’s dissertation — are finely delineated. Objects and places are imbued with significance; the two-page chapter called “Still Life with Underwood Typewriter,” which describes Elizabeth’s desk, is the best characterization-by-catalogue I’ve ever read.
Elizabeth’s appearances to Sam are mysterious, but never campy or sentimental. Sam loves his wife immensely but doesn’t sanctify her: “And I don’t need metaphor to try and elevate her to a deity. She is just Elizabeth. She made good soups and stews. She was writing a book. She used pencils” (80). Next Life Might Be Kinder is, quite simply, a perfect exploration of the particularities of grief.
After I finished the novel — in two sittings — I happened upon a review that mentioned its relationship to some of the writing in I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, a memoir by Mr. Norman published last year. I went to the library and read it immediately, then bought my own copy, because it’s a wonderful memoir, and I’ve never much liked the genre. In five sections, Mr. Norman explores pivotal periods in his life; several of the events echo in Next Life Might Be Kinder.
I’ll let the writer himself summarize I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place:
What is remembered here? A bookmobile and an elusive father in the Midwest. A landscape painter whose plane crashed in Saskatchewan. A murder-suicide in my family’s house. A Quagmiriut Inuit rock band specializing in the songs of John Lennon. And in Vermont, a missing cat, a well drilling, and my older brother’s requests to be smuggled into Canada. If there is one thing that connects these disparate experiences, it is the hopeful idea of locating myself in beloved landscapes — Northern California, Nova Scotia, Vermont, the Arctic — and of describing how they offered a home for honest introspection, a place to think things through. Often I just wanted to look at birds for days on end, shore birds in particular. (xi-xii)
These are beautiful books, and highly recommended.
*I received a copy of Next Life Might Be Kinder from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.