Unlike Fabian Vas of The Bird Artist, DeFoe Russet doesn’t “chill” with the assistance of copious amounts of coffee. For Russet, the methodical task of ironing is how he manages to keeps it all together – gathering his thoughts and calming the nerves. Thankfully for Russet, he lives at the Hotel Nelson, which means there is ironing to be done by the basketful if he ever needs it. And, despite the outward appearance of dullness and even dimwittedness, Russet, like Norman’s previous protagonists, has a whole lot simmering just beneath the surface.
Most of his day-to-day routine revolves around his work as a guard at the Glace Museum and his girlfriend Imogen Linny. Russet is a creature of habit and has no friends to speak of apart from the cursory associations he has with the staff at the hotel. His uncle and Imogen are the main focus of his cramped, limited lifestyle. However, these two relationships self-destruct during the course of the story.
Russet’s Uncle Edward is incorrigible. An alcoholic Casanova; abusive of his position as a Museum guard where DeFoe also works and highly derisive of DeFoe’s failing affair with Linny, he sustains a reciprocated devotion to Defoe, albeit a twisted one. Considering that he raised Russet after his parents’ death in a Zeppelin crash when he was eight, it only stands to reason that the family bonds be maintained, if only fragilely.
Russet’s girlfriend is an anomaly. Orphaned, like DeFoe, she is the caretaker of a Jewish Cemetery. They meet at the Museum on DeFoe’s first day of employment at a viewing of recently received Dutch paintings. Searching for a sense of personal identity and feeling dissatisfied with her own life, she develops a gradual, but all-consuming obsession with one particular painting entitled Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam. She ultimately believes that she is the Jewess in the painting, even wearing identical clothes and the same hairstyle. Her fixation borders on insanity, infecting all those closely associated with her. They each pay an enormous price, including her friends, Professor Delbo, tour guide for the museum, and Mr. Connaught, its curator.
DeFoe, however, ultimately pays the highest price. Despite knowing that their relationship was a barely tolerable endurance for Linny, he strives to regain her affections after their relationship takes a nosedive. Set on a course of self-destruction, Linny is lost to everyone, though.
The Museum Guard is a story of art, war, love, but above all, survival. Norman once again shows us how the lives of ordinary people are so easily transformed and called upon to contend with situations forced on them through the course of their daily lives. This is my favourite of his novels. As the New York Times Book Review says: ‘[Norman] has mastered a narrative voice so dry, so laconic, so humbly self-denying, that the most muted gestures can have the force of a scream.’ In a similar vein, Elle says: ‘…this book is so delicate that it’ll batter your heart into little tender pieces.’