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Book Reviews

My Famous Evening: Nova Scotia Sojourns, Diaries, and Preoccupations

by Howard Norman

My Famous Evening is Howard Norman’s ode to Nova Scotia, a province that has formed a significant part not only of the Vermont resident’s fiction, but of his development as a Canadian writer and storyteller who has never actually lived in the country. There’s nothing straightforward about this paean, however; Norman has delivered a book as rich in voices, as idiosyncratic and as warm, as the province itself.

The latest addition to the National Geographic Directions series, My Famous Evening is divided into four distinct sections, with a lengthy poetic epilogue. The book opens with “My Famous Evening,” an account not only of Nova Scotia resident Marlais Quire’s 1923 decampment – leaving husband and children – to hear Joseph Conrad read in New York, but of Norman’s discovery of the story in a series of letters written by members of Quire’s family. This dynamic, of recounted tales and Norman as a witness to the discovery of these tales, repeats itself throughout the book. In Nova Scotia, the past looms large, threatening to sweep Norman away with its force.

Norman’s exploration of Nova Scotia includes forerunners (the omens of death at sea that are common in the coastal villages), birding, the legends of Glooskap, the poetry and biography of Elizabeth Bishop, and, perhaps most movingly, the photography of Robert Frank. Readers familiar with Norman’s fiction, including The Bird Artist and The Haunting of L., will find resonances here. Characters, settings, motifs, and themes in those works have their genesis in Norman’s experiences in Nova Scotia, which include a youthful residency at playwright Sam Shepard’s house on the Fundy shore and regular birding pilgrimages. Readers new to Norman will find in My Famous Evening a perfect introduction to his work, grounded, like all of his writing, in a vivid sense of place and character too rich to be invented.

Norman’s treatment of Nova Scotia, its lore, history, and people, is at once respectful and passionate, an insider’s perspective combined with the joy of people from away finding their way home.