Reading Howard Norman’s WHAT IS LEFT THE DAUGHTER, we were wowed by (among other features of the novel) the quirky detail. For instance:
• The book is largely set in Middle Economy, Nova Scotia, which sits between Lower Economy and Upper Economy. “Locally the joke was, if you were traveling west to east along the Minas Basin, your financial prospects got worse by the mile, until you finally ended up in Lower Economy. I never once heard the logic of that joke reversed…”
• The World War II-era characters find meaning in a volume called THE HIGHLAND BOOK OF PLATITUDES. “Those platitudes aren’t much good for predicting life, but they often manage to sum up what has just happened pretty well.”
• One of the characters is a professional mourner, which is to say she is hired at funerals to express grief on behalf of the deceased. “As my aunt liked to point out, Tilda seldom did anything halfway, and as I soon observed, mourning was no exception….she fell into a strange marionette’s flailing of arms, wailing and moaning.”
How did Norman come up with all that, we wondered. What kind of imagination thinks that stuff up?
Last week we had a chance to find out at a local literary salon where Norman was the featured speaker. He is the author of numerous books, perhaps most famously THE BIRD ARTIST, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. He looked like an author in a tweed jacket with rumpled hair and that writer’s knot between the eyes. And he was forthcoming about where he gets all his unusual tidbits: research.
Yes, Virginia, there is an Economy, divided into Lower and Central, in Nova Scotia. THE HIGHLAND BOOK OF PLATITUDES was a real book, privately published around 1900. And mourner is – or was – a profession. Norman actually met and interviewed a professional mourner. The murder and trial in the book is based on a real murder and subsequent court case. (We give nothing away here because there is always a murder in Norman’s books.)
We had the sense that the audience was underwhelmed by Norman’s copping to research, but anyone who thinks that writing a novel is only a matter of consulting one’s imagination, might find this revelatory. You don’t have to dream up unique stuff, you can go out and find it. And Norman says one of the best places to find interesting detail is church bulletins.
Norman’s reverence for facts is shared by his first-person narrator who is writing an account for his daughter who he has not met since her birth. “Marlais,” he begins, “today is March 27, 1967, your twenty-first birthday. I’m writing because I refuse any longer to have my life defined by what I haven’t told you. I’ve waited until now to relate the terrible incident that I took part in on October 16, 1942, when I was nineteen.” Happily for the reader, grounding in dates and times do not prevent Wyatt from losing control of events: “On into the autumn of 1942, there was, to my mind, a nagging sense of life being off kilter.”
Life being off kilter is what makes this book such a wonderful work of fiction.