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The Museum Guard by Howard Norman

The Museum Guard (1998)

by Howard Norman

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Whoa! This was such an excellent story! I had no idea that I'd like it so much while I was reading it because nothing much seemed to happen for fully the first half of the book. I was also unhappy that the younger guard's love interest, Imogen Linny, seemed delusional, thinking that she was actually a person in a Dutch painting ("Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam'"). I never knew, at that point of the novel, how important that fact was to the very detailed plot to follow. The only thing I can say about the tempo of this book is to go along with it and wait to see what happens. You will not be disappointed.

Basically the story moves from the narrator, Defoe Russett, to Imogen as she goes deeper and deeper into her delusion while well-meaning folks try to help her. Those folks, though, are not sure, if by feeding her fantasy, they are helping her or harming her. It will be for you, the reader to decide at the end of the book. I actually liked the last part of the book the best, although it was a series of letters. They were so descriptive and astonishing! They described what happened to Imogen after she was escorted to Amsterdam to meet the artist who painted the woman she imagined herself to be.

I read this book because I liked The Bird Artist, another novel by the same author. Bring on more of his books! What a treat they've been so far! ( )
  SqueakyChu | Sep 13, 2018 |
Odd but evocative novel set in 1930s Halifax, Nova Scotia. Love, obsession, art. Strangely compelling and beautifully written. ( )
  icolford | Aug 10, 2011 |
Set in late 1930s Halifax, Nova Scotia, this story of love, obsession, identity, and art takes place as Canadians are just beginning to hear of the horrors Hitler is bringing to Europe and to Europe's Jews. The writer holds the reader at arm's length, leisurely edging towards the heart of the tale, a spell-binding gem which takes up the last 100 pages. Unfortunately, the story should have been a novella, not the 300-page novel it is. I say unfortunately because I think many readers will give up in disinterest before they get to the wonderful conclusion. ( )
2 vote auntmarge64 | Sep 3, 2010 |
howard norman writes novels that are almost twilight zone, strange character inacting with "norman people' that get caught up in a werid experience. he is a excellent writer ( )
  michaelbartley | Jun 26, 2010 |
The Museum Guard tells the story of an uncle and nephew who work as security guards at a small museum in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The nephew, DeFoe, lost his parents in a zeppelin accident when he was eight and has since been raised by his uncle. DeFoe grew up living in a hotel with his uncle and when he finally moved out of his uncle's room, it was only to relocate down the hall in the same hotel. DeFoe's uncle, Russett, is a crotchety man in his forties who lives a fast life filled with women, alcohol and gambling. Trouble arises when DeFoe falls in love with an eccentric woman who is the caretaker at the local Jewish cemetery. When a new piece of artwork comes into the museum, DeFoe’s girlfriend becomes infatuated with it to the point of endangering her own life and sanity as well as that of the other characters in the novel.

This novel was a good read but it was very odd. The book seemed to start off with a very different story than the one that it ended up with. About halfway through the novel, the plot too an extremely unexpected turn that really changed the entire direction and theme of the novel. I greatly enjoyed the relationship between the nephew and his uncle but was not enthralled with the other characters. Furthermore, the events in the final 100 pages of the book seemed extremely far-fetched and completely out of context. Additionally, the last fifty pages are written as a series of letters which come off as being stilted. It feels as if the author wanted to the reader to have information that was outside of the narrator's purview and therefore decided to tell the final chapter through correspondence. Despite my knowledge that the book had peaked halfway through, I was still drawn to finish it.

www.iamliteraryaddicted.blogspot.com ( )
1 vote sorell | Dec 26, 2009 |
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"Let us shut off the wireless and listen to the past."--Virginia Woolf
For Jane and Emma
For Melanie Jackson
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The painting I stole for Imogen Linny, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, arrived to the Glace Museum, here in Halifax, on September 5, 1938.
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Book description
Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1938. Orphaned at age nine by a zepplin crash, Defoe Russet grew up in a hotel unde the care of his magnetic uncle Edward. Now thirty, DeFoe works with Edward as a guard in Halifax's three-room Glace Museum. By day, he and his uncle break the silence of the museum with heated conversations that show them to be "opposite at life." By night, DeFoe spends his time trying to keep the affection of Imogen Linny, the young caretaker of the small Jewish cemetery. Their relationship is a most provocative example of unrequited love. When the Dutch painting Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam arrives at the museum, Imogen becomes obsessed and abandons her life in favor of the ennobled one she imagines for its subject-even though a Jew in Amsterdam is becoming more and more perilous as the clouds of WWII begin to gather. As the true story of the Jewess emerges, Imogen leaves DeFoe and enters the orbit of Edward and his own fascination with the horrific news being broadcast from Europe. Drawing together the mysteries of identity and self-determination and the ominous aura of the late 1930s, The Musem Guard is an examination of the desire to step out of the everyday and into action - and of that desire's often tragic consequences.

Haiku summary

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0312204272, Paperback)

On September 5, 1938, DeFoe Russet helps hang a new show at a tiny Nova Scotia museum. He doesn't even pay much attention to the eight new paintings from Holland; he'll have time enough to take them in later on. After all, the buttoned-down 25-year-old is one of two people at Halifax's Glace Museum paid to watch out for the art, to stop people from getting too close to it. But DeFoe also knows that "as a guard you had emotions. You got to know paintings better than you got to know the people in your life. Speaking for myself."

The other guard--and the man who raised him after his parents died in a zeppelin crash when he was 9--is his Uncle Edward. Edward is certainly not the steadiest fellow employee or familial influence. He devotes his nights to drinking, poker, and charming women at the Lord Nelson, the hotel where both men live, and his days to hangovers, somnolence, and generally harassing museumgoers. DeFoe, at least, is a model employee. Yet his personal life cannot be quite so regulated, and for the last two years he has been frustrated in his relationship with a caretaker at the local Jewish cemetery. He seems to expend most of his energy anticipating Imogen Linny's moods, assessing the power of her headaches, and banging his head against her nocturnal mixed messages and philosophizing. As the novel progresses, Imogen also grows increasingly obsessed with one of the newly arrived paintings, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam.

Soon, DeFoe puts his career in jeopardy for Imogen, stealing the picture for her--though this is only one of the mysteries at the heart of Howard Norman's strange and startling third novel, The Museum Guard. Through DeFoe's eyes, we, too, begin to understand the allure of the painting, in which a woman pushes a bicycle and holds a loaf of bread, the shop window behind her filled with toothbrushes. "The toothbrushes made me laugh. They quickly put me in a good mood," he recounts. "But then I looked close up at the Jewess's face; I was sunk from that mood in a second. Because it struck me as a face of desperate sadness. Those are my own words. I stood as close to the painting as I could without touching it. Me--a guard. I reached out then and touched the woman's face. And I did not flinch back my hand or warn myself."

Howard Norman's protagonist would probably be able to pull himself back; this is a man who calms himself down by ironing endless white shirts. And he fully intends to keep the same job for the next 30 years. But those around him lack his instinct for order and seem to be pushing him toward the grand, self-destructive gesture. News of Hitler's advances on Europe also make him realize "how small Halifax had become." Imogen, too, feels her life a confinement, but her reaction is more extreme. She literally wills herself to become the woman in the painting. In one bizarre scene--and Norman has a knack for turning the extreme into the everyday--DeFoe finds her filling in for the usual museum guide. Speaking in an unconvincing Dutch accent and dressed as the Jewess, Imogen tells a group of increasingly puzzled women her version of events. "While he painted me, we fell in love. Just weeks before, with my parents' death, I had become estranged from my very soul. My marriage to Joop Heijman helped me to reconcile. And now you know my deepest secrets." Edward's assessment is as wry as ever, and spot-on: "Life in Halifax used to be so simple, didn't it, DeFoe?"

As Imogen's identification grows, she is resolved to go to Amsterdam and "reunite" with the painter. Howard Norman writes with such persuasive oddity that it's no surprise when those closely allied to the Glace Museum find themselves moving this futile, intrusive, and dangerous plan along. The Museum Guard is an unsettling examination of a group of people (with very odd names) who let themselves get too close to art--and perhaps to life. --Kerry Fried

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:48 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Orphaned by a zeppelin crash at age nine, DeFoe Russet was raised in a Halifax, Nova Scotia, hotel by his magnetic uncle Edward. Now thirty, DeFoe works with Edward as a guard in Halifax's three-room Glace Museum. He and his uncle disturb the silence of the museum with heated conversations that prove them to be "opposites at life." Away from the museum, DeFoe courts the affection of Imogen Linny, the young caretaker of the small Jewish cemetery. Everything changes when Imogen, inspired by the arrival of a painting, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, abandons Halifax for the ennobled life she imagines for the painting's subject{u2014}even amid the growing perilousness of being a Jew in Amsterdam. Set against the impending events of World War II, The Museum Guard, the second book of his Canadian trilogy, explores the mysteries of identity and self-determination, and the desire to step out of the ordinary into an alluring and dangerous sphere of action.… (more)

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