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The Bird Artist (Canadian Trilogy #1)

3.82 of 5 stars 3.82  ·  rating details  ·  1,968 ratings  ·  259 reviews
Howard Norman's The Bird Artist, the first book of his Canadian trilogy, begins in 1911. Its narrator, Fabian Vas is a bird artist: He draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay, his remote Newfoundland coastal village home. In the first paragraph of his tale Fabian reveals that he has murdered the village lighthouse keeper, Botho August. Later, he confesses who and what dr ...more
Paperback, 304 pages
Published March 15th 1995 by Picador (first published 1994)
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The Bird Artist is a mystery, but an unusual one. In most mysteries a crime is committed early in the story (or maybe even before the story begins) and the reader knows that eventually there will be a solution and perhaps even a confession. But this isn’t what happens in The Bird Artist. In fact, the novel employs a plot device popularized by a TV series.

Remember "Columbo," which starred the late Peter Falk? Remember how the series utilized what came to be labeled the “inverted detective story”
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from start to finish, so much so that I must soon read The Museum Guard by the same author. It's the dialogue that grabs you. The banter. I wish I could come with such replies when talking - light and piercing at the same time. I enjoyed reading about Newfoundland. Get out your atlas so you can find the islands, bays, coves mentioned. And the birds. It is terribly fun to look those up too so you know exactly what the narrator is speaking of. Marvelous characters. ...more
There is a latent creepiness about the northeast section of North America (Canada and the U.S.) that seems to bring out the Melvilles and Lovecrafts of the world. Weird. So I place this book within the gothic chapter of the Atlantic, where fog covers treacherous shoals and madness breeds within shuttered homes. There's a reason the sun decides to set in the West, folks.

 photo Newfoundland1900s_zps1fa84477.jpg

Circa 1910-1911, the protagonist of this story makes a living by selling his own bird illustrations while living in a remote vi
Elizabeth Gonzalez
“Birds . . . and the making of a bird on the page is the logic of my heart. And yours?” So Isaac Sprague, bird artist, writes to his student, Fabian Vas, the narrator of Howard Norman’s acclaimed novel.
Life in The Bird Artist follows its own logic, and this constitutes one of the chief delights of the novel. Early in the narrative, Fabian tells of a time when his childhood friend, Margaret Handle, crashes her bike into an old man, sending him over a cliff. It seems clear that the crash was an ac
Fabian Vas, the narrator, introduces himself in the beginning of the book: "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." In the story that follows, Fabian reflects back on the events that led up to the murder.

Fabian lives in the isolated village of Witless Bay on the eastern coast of Newfoundland in the early 20th Century. It is so remote that it takes a month for a letter t
Imagine getting to know a character by what he says and does and not how he looks. Now imagine a novel opening with a character confessing a murder. If 10 people read this book and were asked afterwards to describe the protagonists, one would have 10 completely different and valid responses. A real fave of mine.
Will Byrnes
Storytelling lives here. Set in Newfoundland, the tale centers on Fabian Vas, who, it is clear from a very early age, is a gifted artist with a penchant for drawing birds. In the first paragraph we learn that he murdered a lighthouse keeper. The rest is about getting to that. This is a very engaging read, with interesting, quirky characters in an unusual place, that seems somehow quite familiar, any American small town uprooted and dropped on a rocky northern Canadian Atlantic coast and left to ...more
"The Bird Artist" was nominated for the National Book Award in 1994; I came across the title recently in a list of new paperback releases. The story is set in a remote village in Newfoundland at the beginning of the 20th century. I thought the stark setting was beautifully evoked and the characters totally believable and interesting as individuals. The plot involves various forms of violence, transgressions, and anguish, but these are mostly recounted in a muted way. I found it a sad and bleak t ...more
Scattered, unpleasant, improbable, and lacking any comprehension of its characters or their motivations, this tasteless mess of a novel clunks along to an unneccessarily melodramatic conclusion with the grim concentration of a third-grader practicing the oboe. Don't bother.
Ronald Wise
This novel eventually proved to be very captivating. Initially it seemed merely an opportunity to learn about human and avian life on the extreme eastern edge of Canada - in a remote village called Witless Bay on the Atlantic coast of Newfoundland. Even for such a small community, the characters - including the narrator, Fabian Vas - were not easy to know, but with patience and acute observation their true natures slowly emerge to both the reader and narrator.

So many aspects of this novel consta
Diane S.✨
The Bird Artist Such a different, yet compelling story, set before World War I in an isolated part of Canada, Witless Bay, Newfoundland. Fabian, grows up here, a place where everyone knows everyone else, where gossip is spread almost instantaneously, where it takes over a month a get a reply to a letter.

The novel starts with Fabian admitting to having killed someone, but this is so much more than a murder mystery. It is also a coming of age story, a story where the setting and Fabian's love for
That moment when you pull a book from the bookstore shelf, open the cover and find yourself dropping into a chair only to surface from the pages a full chapter in... Well, that is the moment a good book has fallen into your hands. Norman, a National Book Award finalist, begins this tale in 1911. A story written in spare, haunting language, this is the story of Fabian Vas, who draws and paints the birds of Witless Bay. The narrator is haplessly caught up in sudden love and murder in a remote Newf ...more
“ ‘Nowadays, people have to travel to get important memories. Not me’” (35).
“ ‘I’ll get up at 4:30 to make your coffee,’ my mother said. ‘But I won’t be in a civil mood’” (37).
“His face collapsed; the only thing worse for Boas than being overcharged was not being allowed to pay what was rightfully due” (60).
“Then I got dressed and went back to my house. I drank coffee and drew birds all day” (66).
“I sat with my sketchbook, trying to capture how cormorants perched on buoys, fanned out their wings
As soon as I opened this book and started reading I wanted to stay in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, in 1900. I almost didn't care about the story, or the story was secondary, as long as I could stay in the setting, it was that relaxing. The birds, the water, the boats, the general store; this setting was a vacation for my tired mind. The characters were quaint and eccentric and mostly likable, except when they weren't of course, I don't claim to understand them. There was a lot going on, drama-wise ...more
Dani Peloquin
Fabian Vas is the main character and engrossing narrator of this novel. Within his first paragraph is states that, "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." From here he tells the story of growing up in a secluded fishing village in the early 1900s. Vas develops his skills as a bird artist which means that he draws birds. He ...more
May 25, 2015 Jeff rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Jeff by: Mom
Shelves: murderers-row
I'm not sure how i feel about this book overall. I read it quickly, and usually that's a sign that i liked it. Then again, i had so many boring hours of sitting in airports, on airplanes, and in Red Cross waiting rooms that i might've been able to finish a much longer book in the same time.

It was (sort of) recommended to me by my mother while visiting her in Florida. From the very first, i wondered what was going on with the narrative voice. I think Fabian Vas is just an extremely detached chara
Bill Purdy
Loaned to me by a friend, a promotional copy of The Bird Artist languished on my book shelves, unread, unloved, for 20 years. It is no longer unread, but it may still be unloved.

Set in Newfoundland in the early 1900s, the story seems mostly concerned with drawing quirky characters with funny names than it does with telling an engaging story. Plenty 'happens,' I suppose - the murder foreshadowed on page one being the central event around which the characters dance - but the events seem to exist m
Despite having a weak plot that goes nowhere, an uninspiring main character, and very little character growth in general, I found myself thinking that in the case of the Bird Artist, it's not the destination but the journey that matters. The writing is absolutely beautiful, each word worth lingering over, the characters are quirky and worthwhile, the setting takes you to another place and time entirely, and it hits you with wisdom and emotion when you least expect it. And the depth of Margaret H ...more
Doug H
Spare, quietly compelling writing set on a slow boil. Very well-controlled and well-crafted. Bleak but beautiful, sad yet funny. Features a quirky (dim-witted?) unreliable narrator and an unforgettable heroine. I loved how Norman showed rather than told this story and I'm looking forward to reading more of his work.
National Book Award Finalist. AVWC Book Club selection. I have trouble with 5 stars denoting "awesome", but this book grabbed me in the first paragraph when the narrator, Fabian Vas, introduces himself as a bird artist and states that he murdered the lighthouse keeper. Norman's excellent story-telling style makes this a page-turner throughout. Well-liked by the book club, although we had trouble explaining some of the meanings: maybe it was just a good story? Historical fiction in the sense of e ...more
John Pappas
Not awful, but I have no desire to read the other books in the trilogy. Some solid writing in parts, but the characterization is oblique and many characters seem to lack authentic or believable motivations-- they are not uninteresting, but just a bit rudderless. There seems to be a subsubgenre of stories set in Newfoundland, P.E.I. or Nova Scotia (I.e. The Shipping News by Proulx) full of stoic fishermen and stern women. There may be a preacher and a mad woman, or an eccentric protagonist strugg ...more
I bought this book for it's cover, and it contents astonished me, catapulting The Bird Artist to my favorite book that no one knows about. Here's the first paragraph, which I memorized, because I read it so many times out loud to people: "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 ...more
Sue Cronin
Closer to a 3.5, decided I was going to become more stingy with my 4 ratings
This book was quite a surprise, at least when basing my expectations on the title and synopsis. I enjoyed all of the characters and unique plot. Using this novel as my only example, Norman seems to be one of those writers that can say a lot more with less: a character's comment or action, what they don't say, etc. If this interests you, read some of the more insightful, prolific reviews for a better idea.
Kyle Muntz
This is a subdued, brutally unpleasant book. Mostly I think it's good for very unexpected reasons--the 150 pages leading up to the murder were full of low-key, intensely distinct characterization, followed some less interesting stuff, then a conclusion I enjoyed quite a bit. The early scenes with Fabien's mother and father were especially striking to me, but probably the most interesting element of the novel was Margaret, and I'm pretty sure I loved every scene with her in it. Despite the fairly ...more
Such a strange story of an unhappy family in a seaside Canadian village in the early part of the 20th century. In some ways this is a story of village life; everyone knows each other's business, each person has an important role to play in keeping the village alive. The characters and their relationships are what make this such a strange story. Why does Margaret hate the church rector? Why are Orkney and Alaric Vas so unhappy with each other? Why is the lighthouse keeper so unpleasant, and why d ...more
Janice Sherman
This book got under my skin. As with other reviewers, I had a hard time deciding if I really liked it or not. There is stark prose and descriptive beauty of the setting. There are interesting characters. The book ultimately disappointed me because I expected something more from the ending. But I still gave it 4 stars, perhaps because it reminded me of "Ethan Frome" in an offbeat way.
Sep 11, 2007 Jeannie rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: canadians
i have a love/hate relationship with this book. i really liked the female character in the book and hated everyone else. the book is odd because it is supposed to take place at the turn of the 20th century (1900's), but it just doesn't seem time-appropriate.

other than that, it was a quick read and once you got into it, kept you reading.
His Newfoundland characters are quirky but perhaps all island peoples are. The Canadian woman next to me on the plane when I was reading it said, "Newfoundland has always been the backward province--with odd people". Makes me want to go there! (Even though she says they have gotten better in recent years.)
Book Wormy
The Bird Artist Howard Norman

Set in Witless Bay in Newfoundland, a remote community, this is the story of how love and passion can end in murder.

Fabian Vas is a bird artist yet in the first sentence of the novel he confesses to having killed the lighthouse keeper Botho August, the rest of the narrative works backwards showing what events lead to the murder and how Fabian escaped hanging to tell his story.

The book is studded with detailed descriptions of the bird life in Witless bay and indeed th
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Howard A. Norman (born 1949), is an American award-winning writer and educator. Most of his short stories and novels are set in Canada's Maritime Provinces. He has written several translations of Algonquin, Cree, Eskimo, and Inuit folklore. His books have been translated into 12 languages.
More about Howard Norman...

Other Books in the Series

Canadian Trilogy (3 books)
  • The Museum Guard
  • The Haunting Of L
What Is Left the Daughter I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place The Museum Guard Next Life Might Be Kinder The Haunting Of L

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“I didn’t know you could break your finger just hanging up clothes. God Almighty, you situate your hand wrong between a blouse and a clothespin and everything suddenly changes. What a stupid life this is.” “Did” 0 likes
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