Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Museum Guard, by Howard Norman

For Historical Tapestry's blog challenge - N is for Norman.

The Museum Guard is set, mostly, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, a city that seems circumscribed into a tiny world by the limited existence of DeFoe Russet and his uncle Edward, both guards in a three-roomed museum. But the year is 1938, and the outside world is rumbling like a threatening volcano, the danger of which is transmitted through the courageous radio broadcasts of Ovid Lamartine. As Edward becomes increasingly obsessed with Lamartine and his warnings about Hitler, DeFoe wallows in his largely chaste relationship with the beautiful but enigmatic Imogen Linny, the curator of the local Jewish cemetary who can't, it seems, quite decide who she is.

Often, literature paints unrequited love as a noble, if tragic, state. Othello, the Phantom of the Opera, A Long Long Time Ago and Essentially True, etc. But for DeFoe, the narrator of The Museum Guard, however, it is a much less ennobling relationship. Which is kind of poignant, as Imogen becomes obsessed with doing something "ennobling" - leaving her to pursue an idealized identity while DeFoe embraces his faults.

I found this book to be both engaging and frustrating. It's well written, in precise prose that evokes DeFoe's tidy personality and Halifax's cold atmosphere. But the relationship between Imogen and DeFoe is aggravating, as he lavishes patient affection upon her and she seems to only notice herself: her headaches, her thoughts and her worries. Mr. Norman also sets us up from the very beginning to question DeFoe's judgment - in the first sentence of the book, DeFoe tells us he stole a painting for Imogen. So, as the book progressed, I was ready for the theft to happen, and despaired when I thought he would commit this breach of his principles at the worst moment, in a desperate bid for Imogen's affection. I'm glad I didn't throw the book down halfway through, as I was tempted to do, for DeFoe proved himself to be a slightly better man than I had feared. In the end, The Museum Guard raises interesting questions about what it means to define yourself, and what happens when those definitions clash with the outside world.


Sarah said...

Thanks for this excellent review. I was recently sent Howard Norman's newest book for review and am curious how similar it will be in terms of language and theme.

Rowenna said...

Sounds like a fascinating read! I'll have to take a look, and muscle through the bits in the middle if I feel like pitching the book at the wall :)

yunyun said...

Thank you for the fantastic review. I have recently read this book too and share the same sentiment about DeFoe.

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