As a total “java junkie”, Fabian Vas is one mellow guy. Anyone capable of consuming thirty cups of coffee in a single night and keeping it all together, though, would have to have something very serious brewing just beneath the surface.
From the outset, the reader is informed of two important details concerning Vas. The opening paragraph says: ‘My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily a failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living of it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.’
Vas is a young man in the early 1900’s, establishing and coming to terms with who he is as a person. This opening paragraph is the summation of his conclusions, but the circumstances that influence them are the real meat of the story.
Norman’s novel is bewitching – surreal. The Boston Sunday Globe describes it as ‘spare and dreamlike’. This ambience is achieved through Norman’s sparse writing style; the physical setting of the story; and the nonchalant character of Vas himself. Norman creates a world that is extraordinary, remote and detached from reality.
Vas is so passive, so insouciant: nothing appears to impact on him. His family, his girlfriend and the entire village make decisions that direct him along the path that is to be his life, yet he seems unaffected, almost fatalistic in his outlook. Murdering Botho August and becoming a bird artist are the only two salient aspects of his life that, essentially, he can own. They came of his own volition, and this is why he defines himself in terms of them.
Vas’s girlfriend, Margaret Handle, is a hard drinking, lascivious woman, a few years Vas’s senior. He lost his virginity to her when he was 16, and since then she has dictated how their relationship will work. Tuesday’s and Thursday’s are the only days they are allowed to be intimate and Fabian neither questions nor challenges this arrangement.
Margaret has also openly admitted to sleeping with Botho August, the lighthouse keeper, who, on all accounts, appears to be a most boring and unsociable person. Vas’s mother, Alaric, also has an affair with August while his father, Orkney, is away shooting ducks to finance Fabian’s forthcoming wedding. Vas is appalled by the revelation of his mother’s adulterous behaviour, but fails to act or openly discourage her promiscuity.
His parents have also arranged his marriage to a fourth cousin, Cora Holly, a girl he and his parents have never met. Despite Margaret’s obvious disdain for the whole situation, his parents’ persistence, coupled with his own passivity, render the marriage a certainty.
Despite the intense, murderous plot of the story and the drab, almost lugubrious atmosphere at times, The Bird Artist is full of dry wit, and the conversations between the characters are completely compelling. Comical, odd scenes abound, such as Vas and Cora’s meeting, followed by their five minute marriage, and the antic court scene in the general store. The Bird Artist is, in essence, a coming of age story but it is an ingenious, haunting tale, demonstrative of Norman’s unique perception of the complex lives of ordinary people.
Vas is eventually emancipated, both literally and emotionally, from the events surrounding August’s murder, and although he may continue to plod along in life as stoic a fellow as ever, he has at least gained a firm sense of who he is, and the surety of an incredible gift as an artist.