By Howard Nornam
New York: Picador, 1998.
310 pages
ISBN # 0-312-20427-2.

Comments by Bob Corbett
February 2004

Museum guard DeFoe Russet tells us this strange, troubling tale of love found and lost and of identity lost and found, albeit found in a strange way. The tale is set in Halifax, Nova Scotia just before World War II, and the last few pages take us to Amsterdam just before it fell to the Nazis.

DeFoe guards the paintings in a tiny three room museum in Halifax. His uncle Edward is the only other guard. Imogen Linny comes to see a small collection of contemporary Dutch paintings and undergoes a major identity crisis stimulated by the painting “Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam,” painted by Joop Heijman. Before long DeFoe and Imogen become lovers of a sort, and she later develops a rather strange and, for DeFoe, troubling relationship with DeFoe’s uncle as well.

I don’t want to say much about the plot, saying much more than I have already would threaten the rewards of reading this wonderful book. However, with great skill and emotive power author Howard Norman takes us inside a painful love affair, presents us with a psychotic crisis of identity and makes this tale from tiny Halifax into a sort of vague symbol of the impact of WWII and the growth of Nazism on life even in remote Halifax.

A significant early part of the novel is the development of the three main characters, Imogen, DeFoe and Edward. Norman is a master of character development and each of these characters lived for me in the full richness of his or her off-beat life. Along the way Norman was able to draw me so deeply into the suffering and pain of DeFoe in his relationship with Imogen that I could barely continue to read on – it just hurt to do so and I found myself needing breaks, shaking with emotion.

I was quite happy, then, when mid-way through, the novel took a radical turn into the truly fantastic, even psychotic inner world of Imogen. This second part of the novel was grippingly interesting, startling and eerie. It also brought the cloud of World War II into the story and everything began to take on larger proportions. Yet this second half the novel was much less emotionally difficult for me since the fantasticness of Imogen’s condition was so far beyond my experience I was more gaping at her in astonishment than in feeling her own pain and struggle. Even DeFoe seemed to suffer less the loss of her love than he was just dumbfounded by what in the world was going on.

I couldn’t stop reading, put off doing other things, devoted every minute I could spare to this well-written, dark and very suspenseful, surprising novel.

I recommend it to all readers without reservation!

Bob Corbett

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Bob Corbett