By Howard Norman
Houghton Mifflin. 190 pp. $24
Howard Norman's fiction often deals with the intersection of crime and art, a crossroads he usually locates in one of North America's most out-of-the-way places. The Haunting of L., for instance, featured a photographer who might have been involved in mass murder in the wilds of Manitoba, while The Museum Guard detailed a case of art theft in a tiny Nova Scotia museum. And his finest novel, The Bird Artist, dealt with a young painter in the far reaches of Newfoundland who confesses to murder.
Although Norman's new novel, Devotion, also deals with art and crime, this time the offense in question takes place in a much more well-traveled locale: "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'."
The cause of this ruckus is David's apparent betrayal of William's daughter, Maggie, to whom he has been married for just a few days when his father-in-law finds him in a compromising position with another woman.
Despite this atypically urban opening, both assailant and victim soon return to what for Norman is always the true scene of the crime: easternmost Canada, in this case an isolated estate in Nova Scotia where William serves as caretaker and swan-keeper. Here, David sets out to atone for his transgression by nursing William back to health. It proves no easy task. Although William's injuries include a damaged larynx, his temporary muteness does not stop him from tormenting David. As for the now-estranged Maggie, she requires more of David than the usual excuses, since "no ordering or reordering of events could save him from the effects of his own folly."
After this turbulent opening, the novel's focus switches from violence to love, as the history of David and Maggie's whirlwind romance is recounted. David, an aspiring photographer, is teaching in London when he meets fellow Canadian Maggie, the publicity director for a Halifax orchestra. Their relationship is consummated within hours; they are married three months later. And yet, even after a blissful honeymoon in Scotland, some imp of the perverse causes David's judgment to lapse badly.
The same spirit and pride that drew Maggie to David now propel her far away from him, leaving David to seek whatever expiation he can from her wounded father. The prickly relationship between these two stubborn, idiosyncratic men provides the novel's best passages. With the estate's "four preening armadas" of swans bearing silent witness, their mutual pasts unfold. The violence of William's reaction to his son-in-law's behavior becomes more understandable when his own distant infidelity with a local beauty is revealed. The roots of David's self-destructive streak, meanwhile, can be traced to his feelings of creative inadequacy, especially when he compares his work to that of his idol, the great Czech photographer Josef Sudek.
"After photographing in Prague whenever he could," Norman writes, "it became evident that his work was at best second-rate Sudek, all inherited sensibility, the master's influence insistent in almost every photograph David took, even those he meditated on for weeks in advance. This was a kind of artistic malady."
Norman fleshes out this story of fall and redemption with striking, beautifully rendered detail that perfectly captures "what inventive stupidities people were capable of when wounded and confused, no matter their native intelligence. No matter their love for each other." The novel's funniest moment comes when William recounts the story of a local skywriter who loses his job -- and his mind -- after repeatedly declaring his love for a married woman in the skies above her house. While honeymooning in Scotland, David and Maggie witness a sight that becomes emblematic of the book's central theme of devotion: a passing car, driven by an elderly woman, with a live swan in the back seat. "She's devoted to it beyond the logical, and why?" their waitress explains. "Because she thinks the swan's her dear departed husband."
Before David's own devotion to Maggie can be re-established, he must undergo one last ordeal, a bare-knuckled rematch with William that leaves David with his jaw wired shut. First William, then the swans, and now David -- it is a testament to Norman's immense skill that a story that depicts so much muteness can still speak so eloquently. ·
Stephen Amidon is the author of "The New City"
and "Human Capital."