NONFICTION: Novelist Howard Norman’s memoir traces his love of storytelling, and of birds.
In the midst of his new memoir, Howard Norman, whose novels have twice been nominated for the National Book Award, remembers a friend who gave him “an appreciation of the way the skewed order of events and uncanny narrative strategies and wildness of incident in Arctic folk tales organized one’s emotions in a different way than Western, beginning-middle-end stories did.”
That’s as good a description of “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” as you might ask for. Norman, who spent years in or near the Canadian Arctic collecting and translating Inuit life histories and folk tales, writes in the style of those tales: the memories in his book, while chronological, resist a neat beginning-middle-end structure much as they resist drawing conclusions. Norman sets the comic and tragic incidents of a full life against each other and lets his readers take what they may from the proximities.
Norman’s life has a “wildness of incident” that makes for unforgettable reading. In the book’s first paragraph, the 15-year-old Norman sits on the basement stairs reading on a hot Michigan day, and his older brother’s girlfriend walks into the basement, strips off a rain-soaked T-shirt, and stands naked to the waist chatting with him while the shirt tumbles in the dryer. There’s a teenage attempt at building a waterfowl trap that ends badly for an ill-tempered swan and launches Norman’s lifelong love of birds, especially shorebirds. There’s the death in a plane crash of an early lover and a subsequent incident in which the grief-stricken and marginally employed Norman buys on impulse a $4,000 painting (of a shorebird) at auction. There’s the Inuit shaman who develops an instant animosity to Norman and jams his thumbs up the young translator’s nose.
In the last section of the book, Norman confronts a very public tragedy from his life: In the summer of 2003, he and his poet wife, Jane Shore, rented their Washington, D.C., home to an acquaintance, poet Reetika Vazirani. On July 16, in the dining room, Vazirani murdered her 2-year-old son and committed suicide. Norman writes openly and without sensationalism of the process of coming to terms with the defilation of his home by a near stranger in an act of unbearable violence.
In treating the Vazirani tragedy, as in the rest of the book, Norman avoids the common memoir trap of overemphasizing his own emotions. “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” succeeds as memoir because Norman’s outward focus on the people and incidents that have filled his life evokes strong and unexpected emotions in its reader.