Vasha7's Reviews > The Bird Artist

The Bird Artist by Howard Norman
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May 29, 11

Read in March, 2008

There are two topics that I considered while reading this book. One is the personal development of the protagonist, Fabian Vas; the other is reflections about what it is like to live in a small town that is intensely isolated, where many people have traveled no further than a neighboring town or island, where it takes at least a month for a letter to get to the outside world.

I have to say that the second topic is better developed, or at least more appealing, than the first. Fabian is, by his own account, weak and indecisive in his relationships. He is not very observant of other people's feelings and experiences, and extraordinarily inconsiderate toward Margaret, the woman he's allowed himself to drift into a sexual relationship with. Margaret has every reason to despise him by the end of the book, but she still won't give him up. She has few if any other options in the town: it seems like Fabian is practically the only young man in town -- all the other characters mentioned are older (which is a bit odd, now I come to think of it); but that's not the reason, since she could quite well go to a neighboring town to find a man.

The main characteristic of this town is that the people can't get away from each other. They will see each other every day, and all they can do if they don't like each other is to look the other way and try to ignore. And Fabian can't get away from Margaret, and continues to visit her, even when she knows he's planning to accept the marriage that's been arranged for him in Halifax. He thinks about getting away, but in the end the arranged marriage isn't really his plan for that, it's just another thing he's passively drifted into.

In order for life to be at all bearable in such a town, it seems, people have to cultivate a good degree of tolerance for each other. They put up with eccentric behavior without commenting much, and although everyone knows everyone's business (it's no secret that Fabian is sleeping with Margaret, for example), they mostly accept it. But if this tolerance breaks down, as it does when Fabian's mother Alaric (odd name that) cheats on her husband, then the consequences are terrible. A wave of psychological (and physical) violence sweeps through the town because neither Fabian, nor others, was ready to look the other way in the face of adultery.

The self-important preacher is definitely not helping matters. Instead of promoting tolerance, he brings up conflicts again and again in his sermons, and from day to day. He thinks his role is to be judgmental, but he is really one of the most unpleasant people in town; he does nothing to help the fragile social structure.

I really didn't like the way the author handled the characters of Margaret and Alaric; but I'm not sure why. On second thought, I think I do know, and it's not clear if it's the author I ought to be annoyed at. Both Alaric and (especially) Margaret are scapegoated by the town, and willingly adopt that role themselves. Margaret accidentally caused someone's death when she was thirteen, and the constable, a potent symbol of authority and judgment even if he's personally ridiculous, pronounced that she'd have to live with it the rest of her life. And so she did; she never left the place where it happened even though she could have gone away on her father's mailboat. She placed herself in the role of an outsider in the town. And she felt compelled to take Botho August's death on herself too (that may be the only explanation for her so incomprehensibly shooting him). Alaric was initially a less willing goat. She tried (unsuccessfully) to encourage her son to break loose of the ingrained patterns of the town, and wanted him to stay away from Margaret, whose role she understood and disapproved of. Yet, after Fabian betrayed her repeatedly, she too accepted her own destruction.

I think that pretty much explains why I found myself disliking Fabian so much. Self-centeredly, he allows others to sacrifice for him. Certainly, if the author expects me to believe that Fabian finds "redemption", that's hardly the case. The situation at the end of the book is no less perverse than at the beginning.
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