The Museum Guard by Howard Norman

This “random book” (see below)turned up a winner. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

As I understand it, this is actually the middle of a “Canadian Trilogy” by the author. The books are set in Canada but they do not share characters. The Museum Guard is set in Halifax in the awkward and tension filled pre-WWII 1930’s. The story centers on the Glace Museum and the characters whose lives center around it. The narrator is DeFoe Russet a guard at the Glace (hence the title). DeFoe’s parents died in a Zeppelin crash and his uncle Edward, who helps him get his guard job, raised him. The tension grows out of DeFoe’s unique relationship to Imogen Linny and her unique relationship with reality. It all centers around a Dutch painting: Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam. . The plot takes a few interesting twists and turns as tensions mount and relationships are strained to the breaking point. I won’t give anymore away because among other things it is a bit of a mystery; wondering what will happen is part of the intrigue.

The beauty of DeFoe’s narrative is how true and real his “voice” seems; how he pulls you into his life and the life of the community simply by relating events. The prose is sparse and taunt and even a little dark or drab. It weighs heavy on you, the tension and hardness of his life. This continues until late in the book when his pent up emotions and tensions finally explode. This tension and somber tone reflects the mood of the late inter-war period. I am certainly no expert on 1930’s Nova Scotia but I would bet he has captured the mood. The foreboding and growing presence of Hitler is a constant backdrop to the interpersonal tensions in the novel. The characters seemed trapped in their lives and yet they can feel the changes happening in the world and they know sooner or later those events will collide with their world. The tautness of the feelings are a reflection of the inability to prevent the tragedies that seem destined to overtake their daily lives. They want to escape their lives and control their own destinies but when they finally do so, there actions have serious consequences.

The Museum Guard was a fascinating and enjoyable read, a meditation on identity and self-knowledge. It is, however, sparse and subtle not fast paced and choke full of thick description. It reflects its setting: the cold but bracing weather of the north rather than the hot and sultry south or the sunny and easy pace of the west. If that style, that atmosphere, intrigues you then you might enjoy The Museum Guard. I certainly did.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).