Set in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1938, Howard Norman's third novel starts promisingly, and we are quickly drawn into an engagingly quirky world. The narrator, DeFoe Russet, was brought up by his uncle, Edward, alongside whom he works as a guard at the Glace Museum. Edward is a womaniser and small-hours poker player who invariably rolls into work late and hungover, only to slink off to the custodian's room for a lie-down. DeFoe, by contrast, lives a quiet life, preferring to spend his free time indulging his love of ironing. He's a simple soul, and the parochial world of the small-town museum provides a focus for his folksy philosophising.
Into this uncle-nephew relationship come several external factors. Imogen is the caretaker of the town's Jewish cemetery. She selects DeFoe as her lover, and overwhelms him with her uninhibited passion and unpredictable moods. Edward's own hedonism, meanwhile, is disturbed by the nightly radio broadcasts from Europe, bringing news of atrocities against Jews and predictions of war. When a Dutch painting, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, arrives at the Glace, Imogen becomes obsessed; her identification with the painting's subject assumes a pathological intensity. She is determined to have the picture, but DeFoe refuses to steal it for her. So she hops into bed with Edward, hoping that, with his natural inclination towards the roguish, he may prove more amenable.
It's been a gradual process but by now Norman has developed an interesting situation between some believable characters. Yet almost as soon as he has done so, he enacts a series of narrative decisions that have disastrous consequences. The story becomes Imogen's, but DeFoe now rarely sees her. In consequence, the previously airy prose coagulates into stodgy reportage, as DeFoe relates what others have told him of Imogen's progress. Edward is killed off, so curtailing the intriguing fallout from the love triangle, at the same time depriving the novel of the catalyst that has animated DeFoe's character thus far.
Most problematic of all is Norman's apparent desire to make The Museum Guard resonate with "history". To this end, he requires of Imogen a sort of reverse Exodus: she descends into madness, believing herself to be the Jewess of the painting, and voyages to Amsterdam, at a time when most Jews with any resources are fleeing the ambit of the Third Reich. Once in Holland, we learn that the woman in the painting has, in fact, been murdered by the Nazis. But Imogen's jeopardy is never truly felt. Norman's evocation of the horrors unfolding in Europe consists of bald reminders of how "evil" Hitler was, coupled with irritatingly repetitious instances of faux-naIvete. "Imogen . . . is now a Jewess in Amsterdam; and what that might entail, what fate that might draw, given these perilous times, I cannot dare to predict."
The process by which Imogen's identity - that of Canadian half-Jew - becomes supplanted by that of a Dutch victim of the Holocaust is intended to be symbolic; one thinks of Martin Amis's Time's Arrow as an obvious, more successful, parallel. In striving to create the allegory, Norman's narrative talents desert him. The scenes in Amsterdam are overwrought, Norman struggling to achieve some sense of drama but becoming mired instead in melodrama. The reader is left churning through page after page, wondering what on earth happened to the engaging novel they started out with.
His earlier novels, The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist, brought Norman certain acclaim. The Museum Guard represents a failed experiment, but one that confirms where his strengths lie: in good, honest story-telling and imaginative characterisation. His desire to elaborate large themes, and to inhabit settings removed from the rural northern landscapes that have been his fictional home, may yet be achieved. To do so he will need to harness his ambition; make it work for him, not against.