July 2013

Glimpsing moments

By Howard Norman
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Many memoirs tell a straightforward tale of the narrator’s life from birth to the present stage of their lives, reflecting along the way on the failures and foibles of parents and family, on the disappointments of first love or the horrors and joys of school, or on the ragged way that the narrator recognizes and embraces, or refuses to embrace, his identity.

You’ll find many of these elements in acclaimed novelist (The Bird Artist) Howard Norman’s exceptional glimpse into the times and places—especially the places—that animate his character and that have formed his identity. Yet Norman tells these tales not in the usual linear fashion but by recalling moments of “arresting strangeness” that provide the threads by which he has woven the colorful quilt of his life up until now.

Howard Norman is a gifted storyteller whose presence you’ll hate to leave.

Norman experiences such moments of strangeness and, sometimes, clarity, in the places that he calls home for a while; he feels a “bittersweet foretaste of regret when getting ready to leave” them, and it’s these places and his reasons for leaving them that frame his memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place.

In a tale of teenage lust, angst and despair, Norman recalls one summer during his adolescence in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when life seems to be falling apart on the one hand (as his parents go through a divorce) and full of promise on the other (in his sole sexual encounter with his brother’s girlfriend). Through his first job as an assistant on the town’s bookmobile, he learns about trust and loyalty, but he also finds new worlds opened to him through the books he reads. The books, though, carry their own dangers; from one of them he learns to fashion a trap for ducks on a local lake and inadvertently kills a swan. By the end of the summer, he feels lonely and bereft.

Other moments include Norman’s relationship in Halifax with a landscape painter, Mathilde, who “speaks autobiographically, but seldom confessionally”; his encounter with an Inuit shaman and an Inuit rock band whose song gives the book its title; and his attempts to come to terms with a murder-suicide in his D.C. home—the woman to whom he had leased the house for the summer kills her son and herself. Finally, he experiences a moment of “arresting strangeness” at his home in Vermont, where he resolves, in bittersweet fashion, not to “leave this house . . . to let the world arrive as it may.”

Norman is a gifted storyteller whose presence you’ll hate to leave when you close the book.

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