Howard Norman’s novels are nearly all about hemmed-in, stifled people in the vast, silent spaces of the far north, whose quiet lives are thrown about by acts—or moments—of sudden violence. His characters are mostly shy eccentrics, engaged in occupations not so different from the private, controlling business of the novelist: in previous novels, they have included a bird artist and a lighthouse keeper, a teenage restorer of an old movie-house, two museum guards. And because they are all hobbyists, their boxed lives have a feeling of being out of time as well as space, even when, as in his latest book, the action is located in the mid-1980s. One pressed-down drama follows another in a snowbound, spellbound rhythm. If the books were set to music, they would be taken on by Glenn Gould.
Devotion, Norman’s sixth novel, is a story of passion, in many interlocking forms, but true to Norman’s deliberately mild, pocket-watch style, its title places its emphasis on the undramatic, domestic, quiet acts that for him seem to make up our real lives. It tells a love story in which husband and wife never share a house; most of the time they watch one another through rainy windows, communicate through an intermediary, or pass on intimate messages by tape recorder. Their few moments of hand-to-hand and mouth-to- mouth contact are exciting precisely because they exist in such a prairie of noncommunication.
When the action begins, the main character in the book, David Kozol, is to be found sitting at an estate in remote Nova Scotia, tending to his father-in-law, William Field. William, we soon learn, had confronted David in London after seeing him with a woman other than his wife (and Field’s daughter) Maggie and, in the ensuing scuffle, had stepped off a sidewalk and been hit by a taxi. It is now David’s paradoxical task to nurse back to health the man who had challenged him to a fight—and who regularly writes him notes promising to clock him again. David is not allowed to see Maggie, to whom he is still married, and almost every time she comes to visit her ailing father, David makes himself absent (a task to which he is well suited). The accident left Field with four cracked ribs, a fractured arm, and a shattered pelvic bone, but the worst injury was to his larynx: for a while after the accident, we are told, his voice seemed unlikely to return.
In this odd position of inadvertent closeness and near-arctic isolation, David tends the wounded swans that were formerly in William’s care, reads Penguin Island and other novels by Anatole France (Maggie’s favorite author), and listens, on a 1950s Grundig-Majestic turntable, to Bach cello suites; he is, we are told, “an illiterate at reading his own heart.” In his spare hours David is writing a monograph on Josef Sudek, the Czech photographer whose melancholy scenes of Prague and still lifes of eggs and glasses …