I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

I’ve long been a fan of Howard Norman’s novels, such as The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard. I also was intrigued by his memoir, In Fond Remembrance of Me, so I jumped at the chance to read this newest memoir by him. I was also lucky enough to hear him read from it at Artifact Coffee in Baltimore.

I really enjoy Norman’s voice. It is smart without being strident, perceptive without being pushy. He doesn’t shy away from his own failings, but tempers them with his appreciation of the people he encounters. I especially enjoy the way he conveys the magic of ordinary moments. Reading this memoir is like listening to my best friend tell me stories.

Most memoirs are a single narrative, but this one is a bit different. It is made up of five discreet pieces. What they have in common is not theme–he says in the Introduction that he is “loathe to suggest that life intrinsically has themes, because it does not.” Instead each occurs in a place that is meaningful to him.

The pieces are arranged chronologically, starting with one set during the summer of 1964 when the teen-aged Norman worked in a bookmobile, and ending with one set in 2003 when he and his family were summering in Vermont while tragedy struck their home back in Washington, D.C.

Because we are viewing experiences through the mind of one man, we do begin to see patterns and associations. For instance, birds are a constant, from the ducks, gulls and swans at Reeds Lake where the fifteen-year-old finds refuge to the Western Oystercatcher that helps Norman heal in the final piece of the book.

And one thing leads to another. Books on birds and animals of the Arctic from the bookmobile later steer him to collecting folktales from Inuit people in the Northwest Territories. A girlfriend in London takes him to Saskatchewan. Seeing a Confederate soldier outside a Vermont cafe somehow prepares us for the dangers Norman encounters when he misjudges other people. Such subtle techniques give the book continuity.

All five pieces evoke particular places and experiences that Norman struggles to make sense of and fit into the life he is making for himself. Many are hilarious, such as the Inuit rock band that specialises in John Lennon’s songs:

Peter had a voice that made Bob Dylan seem like Pavarotti, but what did it matter? With desperate, joyful abandon he shouted, “I got my Eskimo freak on!” –wildly gyrating in classic rock-star style, wailing.

Other experiences go deep into what it means to feel your family is being threatened. Detail by detail Norman builds up each world, each experience. When a Quagmiriut Inuit shaman comes to heal and put protection on Norman’s violated home, we learn that he is wearing “blue jeans, a white shirt, shoes and socks, and a light brown sports jacket” and has somehow smuggled in a caribou shoulder bone. Norman feeds him “scrambled eggs with lox, potatoes, and black coffee.” These details fit seamlessly into the story and give it depth.

Most of us, especially in our later years, feel the need to discover or construct the narrative of our lives. We feel the urge to make the pieces fit together, to have it all make sense. The danger is in either losing some of our experiences or altering them to make them match. We are used to stories with an overall narrative arc. Norman shows us a way to piece the past together without forcing it into an artificial pattern.

Have you read any of Howard Norman’s books? Which is your favorite?

One thought on “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman

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