Love and Murder in Witless Bay

Nancy Crampton
Howard Norman, East Calais, Vermont, 2000

When you read a novel by Howard Norman, you enter into a very particular world. That of course is one of the oldest pleasures novels afford. You lived for a while with Robinson Crusoe on his island as his only companion. Narratives before Defoe were episodes loosely strung together. Shakespeare’s plays are “worldly” in the sense we mean; Samuel Beckett’s aren’t. The sense of being in a world requires something more than immediacy. With Henry James’s novels you are in the close atmosphere of the personal relations of a couple, a group, a circle. A world needs defining limits.

The limits of the agitated world of Norman’s earlier novel The Bird Artist (1994) are those of a village called Witless Bay in Newfoundland. Not very far from it, across the waters of the North Atlantic in Nova Scotia, is the village of Middle Economy (Upper and Lower Economy on either side), some hours’ distance from Halifax. This is the world of the ambiguous personal history narrated by Wyatt Hillyer in What Is Left the Daughter, Norman’s latest novel.

Witless Bay seemed a made-up name, surely. In fact we weren’t quite sure, realizing that Norman (himself aptly named) had roamed the northernmost regions of the continent for years and knew them down to their holes and corners. So we consulted The Times Atlas of the World. And there it was in tiniest letters on Newfoundland’s eastern shore—Witless Bay.

Norman’s new novel, like The Bird Artist, unfolds spontaneously, freshly. It is alive with modest people who work at their trades or keep shops. This small, lower-middle- and working-class world possesses a surprising number of unselfconsciously, narrowly cultivated people, especially in classical music. Their speech is educated though not highly educated (democratically educated); on the fringes you hear country voices. They say things like “In your life happiness is either cut to your length or isn’t” and “My husband and I called a truce and neither slept.”

Middle Economy should seem familiar but it doesn’t. To call its economy lower-middle- and working-class is not quite right, for the village doesn’t have the class consciousness that would justify such terms. It seems a quiet, civil place. The librarian of Middle Economy, Mrs. Oleander, is thrilled to find a poem by “Miss Elizabeth Bishop” in a magazine, for “Miss Bishop” grew up “in Great Village. Practically a neighbor!” (The poem is “Casabianca,” about love that is inarticulate and can only “stammer” when it tries to utter itself out of the flames of passion—“Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck/trying to recite ‘The boy stood on/the burning deck.'”) Middle Economy is not an idyllic place. There are perilous goings-on inside its limits, perilous, as is often the case, because of love. There are perils of a different kind too—offshore sinkings of ships by German…

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