Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book Review - The Haunting of L. by Howard Norman “…writing, writing as if to beat the Devil.”

It is March 1927, and twenty-nine-year-old Peter Duvett, a photographic darkroom assistant attempting to flee his demons, travels from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Churchill, Manitoba, a community of about 1,500 situated on Hudson Bay.

Duvett just happens to arrive in Churchill on his new employer’s wedding day. Vienna Linn, a rather macabre and sinister man who photographs newly baptized Eskimo for the local Jesuit missionaries, is marrying the attractive, red-haired Kala Murie. Kala, though not a photographer herself, has a definite interest in photography. She’s a devoted follower of Georgiana Houghton, a nineteenth century spiritualist and author of The Unclad Spirit, a book Kala’s made her bible. The book details the subject on which Kala occasionally lectures – spirit photography – in which an “uninvited guest,” not present when the photo was taken (he or she being already deceased), appears after the photo is developed.

I don’t want to give too much away, but there are several surprises on the Linn/Murie wedding night that create an interesting, though not wholly believable dynamic among the three main characters.

The book quickly takes on a wonderfully noirish tone as we learn of Radin Heur, a wealthy and eccentric London collector who, in the past, had paid Linn to photograph tragic and gruesome accidents. The fact that Linn probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near the scene of the accident is solved in a way that’s caused both Linn and Murie to flee from Heur – at least temporarily.

A lot of things – melodramatic things – happen in The Haunting of L. – adultery, murder, attempted murder, suicide – and the book is wonderfully atmospheric, capturing perfectly the cold, the snow, and the desolate isolation of northern Manitoba. You’d think, with all the above, it’d most certainly be a page-turner if ever there was one. And yet, the book drags. Surprisingly, it just plods along until reading it becomes more a chore than a delight.

The story is told from the point of view of Duvett, and this, I think, is part of the problem. Peter Duvett is so passive, so complacent, so totally without imagination or curiosity that it’s next to impossible to care about him. Linn and Murie don’t fare any better as far as character development is concerned. Both are shallow and underdeveloped, and I found Murie, in particular, despicable, though it’s Linn I should have despised.

The Haunting of L. is the third book in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy, the other two being the magnificent The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard. The Haunting of L. is written in the same elegant, pared-down prose that’s found in the first two, and Norman provides much food for thought, but, as with its characters, he never gets around to developing any of it and his book certainly suffers. This is a story that “could have, should have, would have” been so very much, but, though beautifully written, just isn’t.

I could have forgiven Norman this shallowness had it not been for the ending. All through the reading of this mysterious, creepy novel, I had no idea how it would end, but I certainly didn’t expect the come-out-of-the-blue, pat ending provided by Norman. Despite the flat characterization, Norman managed to create an original story and a plot that continually twists and turns. He got the three principals in so much trouble one would think there was no way they could dig themselves out. And apparently, there wasn’t. The ending is far too easy, too implausible, and it left a decidedly bitter taste in my mouth.

Sadly, I can’t recommend The Haunting of L. despite its lovely writing. However, I can enthusiastically recommend the first two books in the trilogy, mentioned above. These books still contain the lovely, evocative writing found in The Haunting of L., but they don’t suffer from flat characterization and a tacked on ending.

By all means, read Howard Norman. Just skip this particular book.


Recommended: No, but do read Norman's other books. They are terrific.

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