- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 28, 2002

By Howard Norman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24, 326 pages

Churchill, Manitoba is "located on the western shore of Hudson's Bay at the mouth of the Churchill River. In summer, white Beluga whales abound. Churchill's residents maintain a frontier spirit, in a town where Eskimos and Cree Indians thrive at the outskirts, and best understand the beautiful starkness of the surrounding tundra and sea. The occasional polar bear saunters past the Post Office, surely a sight to behold!"
It was in this small, dreary, cold village that young Peter Duvett (the name was originally "Duvet" but Peter's grandfather added a second "t" when he emigrated from France to England in an attempt to Anglicize the name) answered an ad for a photographer's assistant to the strange, mysterious Vienna Linn in the fall of 1926.
Peter was not a photographer; he "didn't have much talent for that, or ambition." He did have a talent for, "if nothing else," inventing captions. Upon his arrival in Churchill Peter went to work for Vienna Linn, hired by the local pastor, developing the photos Linn took of the Eskimos in the community who had converted to Christianity.
What Vienna Linn really photographed, however, were accidents, accidents he had helped to create. "'[He] saw a wonderful sight, a milk train winding slowly through the snowy countryside. Oh, wouldn't it be terrible should a tragedy befall such a train. The toppled train cars. White milk poured out over the tracks… . But if fate was benevolent, and a photographer happened by, even through pure luck, photographs of such an incident would be priceless to posterity, don't you imagine?' And then the die was cast. The accident suggested."
Vienna would sell his photographs to a devious collector in London, one Radin Heur who had suggested the "accident" in the first place. A botched job resulted in a threat (Mr. Heur's advance returned or Linn's life in exchange) sufficiently potent to cause Vienna, in Montreal, to flee to Churchill.
Peter arrived upon the scene just as Vienna was about to marry Kala Murie, a beautiful woman fond of sipping Goldwasser, a Polish liqueur, who had fallen in with Vienna, been his companion for some time and now was about to become his wife. She was an ardent fan of Georgiana Houghton, author of "The Unclad Spirit," published in 1882. The book "consisted of Miss Houghton's journals, letters, anecdotes, other assorted entries based on years of investigation into the phenomenon of spirit photography." A "spirit photograph is one in which someone whom Miss Houghton called the 'uninvited guest' was present." Kala Murie lectured on her mentor and "The Unclad Spirit."
Kala Murie spent her wedding night in Peter's bed and, in effect, never left it, slowly falling in love with an infatuated young man.
Vienna hit upon the idea of a plane wreck a flight which was carrying his wife to a doctor in Winnipeg as another photographable "accident." The photo he took, captioned by Peter as "Esquimaux Souls Risen from Aeroplane Wreck," was of three bodies of Eskimos who died in the crash. A ghostly spirit hovered over the two who had been baptized, not over the third, unbaptized woman. When he proposed to sell this "spirit photograph" to Radin Heur to make up for his debt, Heur sent over an expert to check the authenticity of the photo.
The expert's findings, his complicity and the ultimate unraveling of Vienna Linn's life, as well as the fate of Peter and Kala make up the conclusion of this tale of good and evil.
Although Howard Norman was born in 1949 in Ohio of Russian-Polish parents, he writes about Canada, and especially the Cree Indians. His novel "The Bird Artist," which was named one of Time magazine's Best Five Books of 1994 and won the New England Bookseller's Association Prize in Fiction, takes place in a fishing village in Newfoundland.
His particular interest lies in Indian folktales, and while "The Haunting of L" is not directly concerned with folklore, it carries a tone of moralistic and ritualized traditions. There is an elegance and seriousness of purpose to the story that suggest a ritual dance.
Mr. Norman's strength lies in his descriptive talent and his depiction of often bizarre minor characters Halifax innkeeper Mrs. Bettina Sorrell and her partially deranged son, Freddy, whose great desire is to be on a wanted poster in the post office; the roguish pilot, Driscoll Petchey, and his Indian girlfriend; Peter's childhood and the strange competition between his mother and her sister for the affection of Peter's unpleasant stepfather. The final encounter between Peter, his mother and her husband and the mother's suicide (or was it murder?) is a fascinating part of the novel.
Georgiana Houghton defines "haunting" "wherein a mental image never leaves the person alone with peace-of-mind." Vienna Linn tells Peter, his rival and employee, that he, Vienna, may be considered an evil man "not because [he] was somehow born that way, but because [he] did not refuse evil's unusual rewards." As Kala tells Peter, "he's created spirit photographs to haunt himself." Yet, one cannot but wonder about Peter and Kala, both of whom have become accomplices to Vienna's practices, albeit not enthusiastic ones. The symbolism at the "happy" end of the novel when Kala and Peter throw the photograph of their wedding picture overboard is clear; but does that end the matter?
The names chosen by Mr. Norman for his characters elicit curiosity.Many sound as if they have secret meanings: Is Kala Murie's name derived from the Greek "kalos" meaning beautiful, or from the Hindu "kala azar," an infectuous disease. "Vienna," the once powerful center of Mittel Europa, is an odd name for a man; Radin Heur's last name means "hour" in French; "Duvet" is a soft, pliable featherbed. Coincidence or significant. It doesn't matter, but it adds to the mysterious quality of a novel that combines the forces of mystery, emotional ambivalence, good and evil and erotic tension.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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