Devotion by Howard Norman

There are not a lot of authors whose new books I automatically seek to read, but I have enjoyed Howard Norman’s work enough that I think he might soon get added to the proverbial list. I recently picked up his latest work Devotion and once again enjoyed his quirky, minimalist style.

Here is how the Amazon review describes the basic plot:

On August 19, 1985, the day that David Kozol and Margaret Field return to London from their honeymoon, David and his father-in-law, William Field, are involved in a fracas that leaves Field in the hospital. Not until almost the end of the book do we find out the cause.

David’s life began heading toward that moment when he first laid eyes on Margaret, traveling as a publicist with an orchestral ensemble, and fell instantly in love with her. They are married in a few months. David wants to write a book about his mentor, Josef Sudek, a Czech genius, and Margaret enjoys traveling with the orchestra, checking in daily with her father, who tends an estate in Nova Scotia owned by a Jewish couple, Stefania and Isador Tecosky, and the wounded swans who live there. After William is hurt, David takes over his estate duties but Margaret refuses to see him.

You don’t read Howard Norman for plot based thrillers, so it won’t surprise anyone that the plot is a little thin. What Norman offers here is a literary meditation on love and relationships (hence the book’s title). I like the way the book flap describes it: “Norman lays bare the inventive stupidities people are often capable of when wounded and confused.” I really like that phrase and it rings true with me. We are capable of quite stupid things in relationships. The emotions and passions get us off kilter and we can act in ways we never would have imagined; and ways that those around us find inexplicable.

This is exactly where David and Margaret find themselves. They have this “love at first sight” type affair but a unique series of events knocks their relationship of course and they can’t seem to bring it around again. Those same passions and idiosyncrasies that brought them together seem to keep them apart.

What Norman does is allow you to get inside the lives of these characters and see the world through their eyes. But he does it in a minimalist way so that, just like in life, there are blank spots and things that are unclear. This lack of a sort of all knowing perspective helps reinforce the insecurity and confusion that can be a part of relationships. You get a strong sense of David’s frustration and his inability to do something about it, for example, because Norman never really develops Margaret into a strong independent character. Instead, you mainly see her through the eyes of her father and David. Norman seems to capture the hard to describe dynamics of families through his prose.

I have noted a number of times how wide ranging my tastes can be; from YA fantasy fiction to mysteries and thrillers to classic literature and literary novels. Norman is a good example of why I read a wide selection. Sometimes you are in the mood for action, or suspense, or plot driven stories. Sometimes you want lush descriptions and complex characterizations, etc. With Norman I enjoy his quirky characters, tight prose, and minimalist plot. There is a certain simplicity to it and yet a depth that lies beneath the surface. Hard to describe really. Might be an acquired taste. But I find it refreshing.

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).

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