The Bird Artist (Reading Group Guides)
by Howard Norman

Published: 2003-01
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ABOUTBOOK: My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have beard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I ...
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(ABOUTBOOK: My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have beard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself." With its first paragraph, The Bird Artist announces its central themes. Set in a tiny coastal town, The Bird Artist addresses universal concerns: the safety of the known versus the attraction of the unknown, the redemptive potential of creative expression, and the transfiguring -- perhaps damaging -- power of the human heart. In developing these themes, Norman's prose reflects the unique landscape of Witless Bay: spare and beautiful, with stark emotion jutting out like cliffs above the sea. This guide was designed to illuminate your exploration of Norman's landscape, and we hope that it allows you to venture out into further discussion and study of this remarkable novel. DISCUSSIONQUES: QToward the end of The Bird Artist Fabian paints a mural on the church wall depicting not only the physical aspects of Witless Bay, but also representations of its residents and recent events. How is Fabian's narration of his story similar to the mural he paints? QHoward Norman spent time in an Inuit whale-hunting community in Greenland. The Bird Artist opens with the following epigraph: "Suddenly, with extreme violence, he felt himself seized by the desire to be, rain or no rain, at any price, in the midst of the valleys: alone" (Giorgio Bassani, The Heron). What role does the theme of isolation, both geographic and emotional, play in Norman's novel? QHoward Norman has said that he originally wrote The Bird Artist because of Margaret Handle -- that "she puppeteers many things in the book." He also "tried to develop landscape as a character." What do Margaret and the landscape of Witless Bay have in common, and how do they shape and affect the book's events? QThe final chapter of The Bird Artist comments on the etiquette of correspondence: "A man sends a letter, a man expects a reply." This chapter also contains a lengthy letter from Orkney to Fabian. What role do letters, and mail, play in the book? Which characters write letters, and which do not? What purpose (purposes) does writing play in this narrative? QOn page 163, Margaret remembers a song her mother sang: "There's no love/true as the love/that dies untold," and tells Fabian that "It means, once a third person -- outside the couple in love -- knows a bout the love, it's diminished somehow." How does her interpretation relate to the novel's events? Could the song have a different meaning? QSome critics found mythic qualities in The Bird Artist. If a myth is "traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon," what does Fabian's story explain or unfold? How does it pertain to the world beyond Witless Bay? QAt his trial, Fabian recalls, "I saw Bevel Cabot, Miriam Auster, Giles La Cotte, Ruth Henley, Olive Perrault. Toward the back were Elmer Wyatt, Peter Kieley, Patrick Flood holding his son Colin, Seamus Doyle." How does the community play a role in Fabian's crime and punishment? Although we never "meet" these characters, what is their significance here? What other writers have used a similar device to convey a group's identity and role? QIn saving Alaric's life, Enoch warns her against straying too far away from her known village. And yet, the novel also presents the unknown, Halifax, for example, as an exciting place of opportunity. Which view does the book, as a whole, support? Safety or limitlessness? The comfort of the familiar lighthouse or the opportunity of the vast ocean? QNorman's protagonists, at various points in the book, commit murder and adultery, lie and steal. Does The Bird Artist condone, or even admire, such behavior? What stance does the novel take on religion and the church? Is there religious imagery in Fabian's mural? In the text as a whole? QThe narrator, Fabian Vas, introduces himself immediately as a bird artist. What is the role of the artist in this book? How dose it relate to Fabian's position as narrator, or storyteller? AUTHORBIO: Howard Norman grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. After graduating from Western Michigan University, he moved to Canada to work as a writer and researcher, with a special interest in the country's indigenous Indian tribes. He is familiar with several Inuit and Algonquin dialects, and his published translations of northern folklore include Where the Chill Came From, How the Glooskap Outwits the Ice Giants (a children's book), and an anthology, Northern Tales, which he selected and edited. In 1977, Norman first encountered the eastern seaboard of Newfoundland, and learned of a local artist who, at the turn of the century, had committed a murder. Armed with a time, a place, and an event, Norman pent the years that followed thinking about the story that would become The Bird Artist. In the meantime, he wrote his first novel, The Northern Lights, which was nominated for the 1987 National Book Award, and a collection of short stories, Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad.

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Overall rating:
  "Quirky yet profound"by calli s. (see profile) 05/08/08

I found this book oddly intriguing. It is as quirky as the names of the inhabitants of Witless Bay. Should generate lots of discussion as to motives, themes and symbolism. Very different and off-the-beaten... (read more)

  "Book generated excellent discussion"by Karen C. (see profile) 10/13/07

This book generated lots of discussion, with varied opinions about the actions, characters, themes, etc. A perfect book club selection as there is great richness in this material.

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