Professor Stuart is reading...

The Bird Artist
By: Howard Norman

I recently made a new friend who is a bird artist. When he told me what he does for a living, I thought immediately of Howard Norman’s The Bird Artist, a book I loved when I read it twenty-five years ago (around the time I started teaching at Bowdoin). This spring break, my friend and I spent a couple of long days driving along the Maine coast, standing in icy winds and looking out to sea at Harlequin Ducks, Long-tailed Ducks, Surf Scoters and Snowy Owls. I also re-read The Bird Artist. Norman’s book is set in 1912 in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. It’s about Fabian Vas, a young man who tells us in the first paragraph that he has murdered somebody. It’s a love story, with at least one suicide, and features whiskey drinking, adultery and bank robbery. And yet it still manages to be a quiet book. I love it that the imaginary world of a novel is a place that you can revisit. When you do, it is in one sense just as you left it: the same words are there on the same pages. It is also different, because you are different. The last time I read The Bird Artist, I had only the haziest idea what Newfoundland looked like. I had no idea what a Thick-billed Murre looked like. This time around, I drew upon memories of long drives on bad Newfoundland roads, memories of thousands of Murres, Gannets and Razorbills nesting on the rocky cliffs there.

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