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'The Haunting Of L' by Howard Norman

With photography as the focus, a strange triangle develops

Sunday, May 05, 2002

By Sharon Dilworth


The Haunting Of L

By Howard Norman

Farrar, Straus & Giroux


Kala Murie is preoccupied with spirit photography, a phenomenon where a person -- not present when the photograph is taken -- appears after the photograph is developed.

The uninvited guest, never a stranger, is the cause of distress to family members who are haunted by the image: A deceased husband, for instance, appears in his wife’s second wedding portrait.

Kala devotes her life to composing dramatic presentations featuring stories of the people whose lives have been affected by spirit photography. Her preoccupation is not the only eccentric behavior introduced in this intriguing and wildly captivating novel.

Peter Duvett, the 29-year-old narrator, for example, is fixated on photo captions that explain the dramatic moment caught on film.

These terse sentences fascinate him to the point where he thinks of own life in these terms: “One time I stepped into an apothecary and said ‘Man with Headache Asking for Help.’ ”

It might be expected that Kala, with her fascination with photo phantoms, and Duvett, trying to explain the dramatic impact of a moment caught by a camera’s lens, should make a happy couple.

Unfortunately in Howard Norman’s fictional world, there are dangerous and damaging complications.

An unhappy Duvett, living in Nova Scotia in 1926, responds to an ad for a photographer’s assistant in Churchill, Manitoba. During his first night in the small Hudson Bay village he is asked by Kala, “the most exquisite woman I had ever seen,” to consummate her marriage to Vienna Linn, the photographer.

Unable to put her odd request into focus (though he tries -- “Man Seeing the Pulse in a Woman’s Neck, Smelling her Perfume, Feeling a Closer Heat than from the Fireplace, Heart Filled with a Woman’s Breath, Heart Racing”), he simply takes her up on her offer.

This caprice sets in motion his uneasy and tenuous new job while dooming the newlyweds. Duvett comes to learn that Linn is on the lam for crimes committed in other provinces.

Kala then tells Duvett the truth: Her husband makes his money photographing gruesome accidents for the private collection of a benefactor in London. The man pays for these macabre shots of death and destruction, but because life doesn’t always provide Linn the opportunity to be at the scene, he arranges for accidents to happen.

After weeks of playing musical beds in the isolated Hudson Bay Hotel, Linn discovers the affair.

When Kala becomes ill with a strong fever, Linn suggests she fly to see a doctor. Too late, Duvett realizes that Linn has sabotaged the airplane. He photographs the crash scene. Kala has survived, but three Eskimos and the pilot perish.

Later, Linn doctors the photograph so that it appears as if the souls of the dead are escaping from lifeless bodies. This is exactly the kind of work his benefactor wants. Duvett captions it; “Esquimaux Souls Risen from Aeroplane Wreck.”

Paralysis sets in. Duvett knows he should leave, but can’t. “To my mind, the larger unknown world seemed less a plausible choice than even the constant nervous feeling of impending treachery I felt in Vienna’s presence. Dramatic or no, that’s how I felt.”

The three travel to Halifax to await the “Verificationist,” who will authenticate the photograph. If he believes it is real, he will pay them for their work. The sense of impending doom increases so that, finally, the desperation of the situation overwhelms Duvett, and he decides its time to end the strange and dangerous relationship with Linn.

Norman’s novels are mysterious, evocative and utterly original in both their ability to transport the reader somewhere new and in the profound shared humanity. His characters struggle to comprehend the logic of their hearts.

Defending their choices often galvanizes them into defensive positions, leaving them even more isolated than they were before. It is as if their decisions guarantee them further estrangement than the lonely communities they inhabit.

This novel is the last in Norman’s Canadian trilogy, which includes “The Bird Artist” and “The Museum Guard,” but it can’t be the last he’ll write of this place. This vast country -- the largess of its history, its cast of intriguing and eccentric characters and its splendid isolation -- certainly seems to inform the logic of Howard Norman’s heart.

Sharon Dilworth is a fiction writer and professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.

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