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The Museum Guard

by Howard Norman

When we see a person in a painting from another time and place, that person can become almost present to us, stirring thoughts and memories in our own time and place. In The Museum Guard by U.S.-based Howard Norman, the process is reversed. The central object in the book, a painting called “Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam,” becomes the channel by which a young woman, Imogen Linny, leaves Canada. The time is the appalling prelude to the Second World War, when the clamorous news is beginning that Hitler’s Germany is a place of crushing brutality. The place is Halifax, Nova Scotia. Against the tide of evacuation to North America, Imogen takes ship for Europe, to become the Jewess on the street in Amsterdam.

Where some writers are canny, the effects that Howard Norman achieves are uncanny. Although his settings are mundane, they have an eerie strangeness. His principal characters undergo three transformations. The first is that, unlike most characters in novels, who have charisma or some important project, Norman’s protagonists lack all conventional attractiveness. Second, they are profoundly eccentric. The first-person narrator of this novel, DeFoe Russet, works as a lowly paid guard in the three-room Glace Museum in Halifax. His eccentricity is to be utterly passive. The novel’s pivotal event, announced in its first sentence, is the one voluntary action that DeFoe makes in his life: from his museum he steals the picture, “Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam,” for Imogen. The third transformation is, that, rather than distracting us, the characters’ quirks bring into relief the deepest need of the soul – to connect with other people. DeFoe longs to connect with Imogen while she, lacking all passion in the present, longs to connect with human history by way of the Jewess in the picture.

As in his previous book, The Bird Artist, the characters’ lives in this novel do not just imitate art, they become art. Though his language is of the everyday, Norman’s voice attains a poetic clarity. This novel of arbitrary catastrophes and hopeful conjunctions will remain in the mind.