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Book Review: Devotion by Howard Norman


Published May 8, 2007 at 8:56 p.m.

It takes skill to write less. While so-called "maximalist" novelists who jump all over the world map and the social landscape are often deservedly acclaimed, there's a place for masterful minimalists who can fence us in and make us like it. Three fleshed-out characters inhabit the sixth novel of award-winning, part-time East Calais writer Howard Norman. The book's "action" takes place over a span of about 19 months. In that time, very little happens by the standards of fiction. But it's enough to redirect the course of the characters' lives - and to remind readers what a sliver of chance or effort it sometimes takes to change everything.

Norman defies expectation by introducing the plot's most "dramatic" development in the novel's first words:

Here is what happened. In London on the morning of August 19, 1985, David Kozol and his father-in-law, William Field, had a violent quarrel on George Street. In a café they came to blows. Two waitresses threw them out. On the sidewalk they started up again. William stumbled backward from the curb and was struck by a taxi. The London police record called it "assault by mutual affray."

From this pivotal event, the narrative jumps forward in time to explore the scuffle's aftermath, then back to show us its motivation, then forward again, and so forth. Although Devotion's book jacket copy strives to present it as a mystery of sorts - what made these two civilized men explode? - that question doesn't take many pages to resolve. Canadian photographer David has just returned from his honeymoon with William's daughter Maggie, after a whirlwind courtship. William has reason to believe the younger man, whom he scarcely knows, has already been unfaithful. A devoted dad's irascible temperament explains the rest.

What's really significant about this opening is Norman's style, which is as pared down as the police report it quotes; his short, declarative sentences leave deep gaps for our imaginations to fill. Throughout the novel, the omniscient narrator maintains a journalistic distance from his subjects, even as he dips in and out of their minds.

Norman calls our attention repeatedly to dates, times and circumstantial details. Just before David meets Maggie for the first time, for instance, he sees two hotel window washers "celebrating the turn in weather"; rain gives them an excuse to sit inside and drink a pint. Does the "turn in weather" foreshadow the dramatic turn David's life is about to take? Or do the window washers remind us that life goes on, indifferent to us, even when we're falling in love? By presenting such facts without interpretation, Norman gives his story an almost hypnotic feeling of inevitability. Like the narrator of a great children's book - a genre that tends to be minimalist by necessity - he simply convinces us it was this way because it was.

And he needs to convince us, because certain aspects of the story are odd indeed. Eleven months after the fight described in the first paragraph, we find David and his father-in-law coexisting almost tranquilly on the desolate Nova Scotia estate where William has spent his life as caretaker. While William recovers from the injuries sustained in the accident, David takes over his job, including the care of a flock of swans. Maggie, who's living and working in Halifax, refuses to see her husband, but that doesn't stop the two men from developing a certain rapport. A testy one, as we see when William, whose speech has been impaired, writes David a note: "Not too long, I'll be able to knock your lights out. Looking forward to the day."

William talks the way he writes, with a Scotsman's bluff, no-nonsense humor. (It's not far off from the voice of Norman's narrator.) One of the novel's great pleasures is its dialogue, which never feels stale: Though Maggie is almost frighteningly articulate, the parallels between father's and daughter's speech patterns make it seem plausible she'd talk this way.

Taking a great joy in thoughts incisively expressed is one of those British Common- wealth habits that doesn't seem to have made many inroads among Americans. There's something that feels peculiarly "Canadian" about both the novel's talkiness and the polite passivity of its hero, who generally has to be dead drunk before he can express himself.

Though David's actions precipitate the fight in the opening paragraph, his failure to act later is the central problem of the story. If he is devoted to Maggie - as everything indicates he is - why doesn't he fight for her? Is he like one of the swans on the estate, lumbering from pond to pen with clipped wings? (Swans are known to be monogamous, i.e., "devoted" - a conventional metaphor that Norman mercifully doesn't milk here.)

We never quite find out what's ailing David, who "had never thought of himself as a loner, just someone who was alone a lot." A photographer whose images always seem derivative or clichéd, he's an observer, not a doer: From childhood on, his response to loss or grief has been to snap pictures. It's an interesting character sketch, but one that never quite comes to life, perhaps because it feels more imagined than observed.

Likewise, when Norman uses stories-within-the-story to make points about his characters, the metaphors can feel precious and unnecessary. Unnecessary because the strength of this novel lies in not having to show us that these people's problems resonate in our own lives. Thanks to the simple, indelible sentences from which Norman crafts his world, they already do.


From Devotion:

When [David] stepped into the lobby he saw Maggie sitting in a high-backed chair of hard red leather with wooden armrests. She was reading a book. He tilted his head in order to take in the cover and title, The Crime of Sylvestre Bonnard. He had not heard of the author, Anatole France. She looked up from the book, not at David, checked her watch, stood and walked outside under the awning. David immediately went there too. That is where they met, David with his jacket caped over his head, Maggie waiting for a doorman to flag down a cab.

To David, the simple fact was love at first sight. The moment provided the definition. He felt a complete realignment of emotions, along with the unbearable advance regret at not seeing this woman again. Whatever her name might be, whatever her life might be. He felt these like pangs, felt them almost hypnotically. He was prepared to get into his own taxi and despite all cinematic cliché order the driver to "follow that cab," he felt such stupefying urgency about her. If your heart is sinking you must act on it, "follow that cab," like a 1940s gumshoe trying to catch up with his own fate. Had Maggie not paid him any mind, he might have done that very thing. He was aware, for an instant, of wanting this to be a philosophical moment, earned by years of waiting for it; wanted to maintain control of his senses. When all he really felt was apprehension and nerves and bewildering abandon, all enough to nearly render him dumb. Of course, one should never expect such good fortune. Not unless you are self-deluded beyond reason. That is just not the world. No, if it is love at first sight, you simply are in it. You cannot hope to step back and observe. His muddle-headedness was such that he could only eavesdrop on his own brain as it came up with nothing but "Hello," which he said. He and Maggie Field looked at each other's face, studied it, you might say, for just a moment.

"Actually, I can stand flirtation only in small doses," she said. "So that sufficed."