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The Bird Artist

(Canadian Trilogy #1)

3.82  ·  Rating details ·  2,818 ratings  ·  375 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, 289 pages
Published March 15th 1995 by Picador USA (first published 1994)
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3.82  · 
Rating details
 ·  2,818 ratings  ·  375 reviews

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Will Byrnes
Nov 01, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: fiction
Howard Norman – image from the NY Times – photo by Emma Norman

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 d
Jun 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: canada, fiction, reviewed
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”
Apr 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
Recommended to Diane by: Calvin Trillin
Shelves: brunch-club
It seems odd to describe a book about a murderer as lovely, but this novel was a lovely read.

I first heard of "The Bird Artist" thanks to Calvin Trillin, who mentioned it as one of his favorite novels. The story is set in Newfoundland in 1911, and this is how the book opens:

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 ligh
I really do struggle to articulate what I found so compelling about this book. The prose is spare, the characters are like trying to touch someone through a fog, the storytelling is strangely matter-of-fact. And somehow this added up to a book where the pages turned on its own- some individually lovely sentences and Margaret only partially explain it. It might also be the rhythm of it- he started strong and once you start this thing there's no good place to stop. Anyway, I suppose the best way t ...more
Nov 25, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Diane S ☔
Aug 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 fo
Nov 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
It’s surely one of the greatest opening paragraphs ever: “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 is an equal part of how I think of myself.” I so admire books that give up their secrets at the very start yet hook you in and keep you reading with interest all the way through. S ...more
Mar 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Sep 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Elizabeth Gonzalez
Aug 08, 2009 rated it it was amazing
“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
Oct 24, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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.
This novel speaks of natural isolation- as if all the people are their own little islands. Detached immensely. And all of them, even Fabian, seem to have predestined outcomes. And the routes to that outcome far from ones of their own choices, on top of it.

The voice of Fabian is so detached as to seem as if he were a 3rd person, IMHO. It's as if he is speaking "about" events too as looking at them from the outside. Things and people access him, not in reverse. And all the people seem so singular
Jun 20, 2007 rated it really liked it
"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
Ronald Wise
Jul 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Quirky is the word that springs to mind about this book. I enjoyed it, though not as much as "The Museum Guard" which I read some years ago and loved. It is set in Newfoundland in the early years of the 20th century in a place called Witless Bay.

The first-person narrator, Fabian Vas, is the bird artist of the title. This passion, and the fact that he killed a man (which he tells us in the first paragraph of the book) are the two main things by which he defines himself. The book is his journey t
Aug 22, 2007 rated it did not like it
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.
Tyler Kazokas
Jan 26, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If I could give this book 10 stars I would. Margaret Handle has to be one of the most interesting female characters ever written.
Dani Peloquin
Apr 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
Oct 14, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
John Pappas
Jul 16, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Jan 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
En general evito a la gente. Todos me envidian porque soy lo bastante vieja para haber visto sirenas y tritones y ellos no. Hoy día la gente tiene que viajar para conseguir recuerdos importantes. Yo no. Fíjate bien en lo que te digo, Fabian Vas, la envidia hace a las personas actuar estúpidamente, incluso a los cristianos. Podrían disfrutar con mis recuerdos de las sirenas, y en cambio los utilizan contra mí acusándome de excéntrica. Creen que miento. La memoria es una peste. Es una peste, recor
Mar 07, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
“ ‘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
Nov 26, 2007 rated it liked it
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
Katie Marquette
Sep 11, 2018 rated it really liked it
A strange, haunting novel that only Howard Norman could write. He is an expert at mood - the eerie, offbeat, and quietly melancholy town of Witless Bay: a place where life seems to simply "happen" to its' characters, victims of odd circumstances and curiously contained rage. Margaret - the beautiful and bizarre paramour of our narrator - a flask always in hand - shooting ducks from her boat... Fabian - an absurdly passive character in his own life story. A murderer, a bird artist. Odd and though ...more
Sep 06, 2016 rated it really liked it
Witty, captivating story. So many great lines in this book! The very first paragraph sets the stage, "I am a bird artist....yet I murdered the light house keeper." P. 37 " Jealousy leads to stupid behavior even among Christians." P. 30 "...appeared as bored as a child in church on his birthday." I highly recommend this quick read.
May 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
I love reading books set in around Newfoundland and this is no exception. The setting is the early 1900s and revolves around a young man, who is a "bird artist". He is also involved in a murder. There is also adultery and plenty of other drama, to sink your teeth in. Highly recommended.
May 27, 2018 rated it really liked it
Odd story of quirky characters--adulterers, murderers, thieves, and alcoholics--all disturbed and flawed, but sympathetic characters just the same. Fabian Vas is the bird artist and murderer, and he admits these things on page one of the story, so I'm not giving anything away prematurely. There is such a haunting beauty to Norman's writing and to the story of these lives. The fact that it takes place in a remote corner of the world, a small town called Witless Bay in Newfoundland only adds to th ...more
Dec 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Sparse, haunting, quietly desolate, at times expansive and at times claustrophobic. This book was complicated, and at times when I read it I felt like there was something happening that I wasn't smart enough to understand underneath the multiple layers. Or perhaps there wasn't. A portrait of love, passion and (possible?) redemption set against a backdrop of isolation and hard living.
Jan 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The only way I can describe this book is subtle, in a good way. I loved the writing style and the well rounded characters.
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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.

Other books in the series

Canadian Trilogy (3 books)
  • The Museum Guard
  • The Haunting of L
“Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think about myself.” 1 likes
“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” 1 likes
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