D.A. Ball
July 22, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Bird Artist is the story of a murderer who lives happily ever after. If the whole plot of this tale of adultery, suicide, and love were taken away, 90 percent of the book would remain: a rambling, gentle portrait of a tiny Newfoundland town in 1911. Like a tidal wave that never hits shore, the book’s terrifying violence never quite lands in the foreground. And though the foreground is rich with engrossing descriptions and unique characterizations, like the elderly woman who waters her plants with milk, nothing would turn out differently had she used water, or even if the lead character drew dogs instead of birds — or wasn’t an artist at all. Though Howard Norman’s far-Northern prose has the muscular grace of some of the best Southern writers, like Reynolds Price or John Ehle, he just hasn’t churned up a mesmerizing yarn. Too much of this seaside chronicle treads water. B-

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