Member Reviews

1918, the war in Europe and the Spanish flu. What else could go wrong? It left me in awe as I read deep into the night. Must read!

I received a complimentary copy of this book. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

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Howard Norman tales of small town Nova Scotia focuses on the conflict between the town’s residents and always include a nautical experience. In this case, a young woman is on trial for murdering her newlywed husband. Her trial testimony shuts the defense when testifies that she had married another man shortly before this second wedding. I guess that gives a new meaning to shotgun wedding. Meanwhile a large whale died beached on the coastline and is beginning to decompose. The town hires a demolition expert to blow up the decaying whale body. It’s a hilarious story that is told from the perspective of an older couple that remind me of Nick and Nora in The Thin Man.

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In the dimly lit St. George's Anglican Church, you can observe the joy at the baptismal fount, the soft whispers of newlyweds exchanging vows, and the hard grief alongside the mourners shaken by the deadly outreach of the Spanish Flu. There are never any guarantees in life. Not ever.

It's 1918 in the small village of Parrsboro, Nova Scotia. World War I adds another dimension. There are the returning soldiers fearful of closing their eyes at night. And then there are those in which reality leans heavily on the eyelids of those who will never return. 1918 will also bring about another impact never expected nor prepared for.

Elizabeth Frame, just twenty-four, beckons in the night to her newlywed husband, Everett: "Darling, come to the window." She spots an enormous beached whale dying in the sands in the moonlight. Everett refuses to come to the window and rolls over rather for sleep. It will be the last thing that this young man will ever do. Elizabeth will be arrested for his murder.

Howard Norman presents a novel in a continuous curving motion. "A collapse of the spirit" threads its way throughout these pages. And yet, in spite of the dread constantly delivered in 1918, there is a flicker of hope worn on the sleeve of Toby Havenshaw, a journalist for the Halifax Evening Mail. He's there to sit in the courtroom during the trial of Elizabeth Frame. At first, he's as perplexed as the rest of the attendees. No one can figure out the actions of Elizabeth who speaks in circles and quotes. Not even her mother, Elsbeth, who sits stoically behind her daughter.

Howard Norman's Come to the Window (Just check out the beautifully rendered cover) is a puzzle box of characters. The individuals in the courtroom sit and stare. "They've most of them gone inward." Emotions have been spent while living through the year of 1918. Facing Elizabeth is almost a daunting task.

But the character of Toby Havenshaw makes you believe in humanity once again. Norman carves out the strength of Toby and his wife, Amelia, a surgeon who has spent most of the year in France and Belgium under the dire circumstances of war. Their easiness of soft banter and genuine kindness adds so much to this remarkable novel. Howard Norman reminds us that the tragedies of life are also stepping stones to greater things to come.

I received a copy of this book through NetGalley for an honest review. My thanks to W.W. Norton & Company and to the talented Howard Norman for the opportunity.

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Trying to get a full handle on Howard Norman’s “Come to the Window” is as slippery a proposition as trying to get a firm grasp on the poem from which the novel’s title is taken, Matthew Arnold's classic “Dover Beach.”
“Come to the window,” Arnold’s narrator exhorts the reader or perhaps a lover, with the look that the window affords of calm sea and tranquil bay, though no sooner is the exhortation made than it’s followed by stanzas of strife and confusion, ending with the disturbing image of "a darkling plain … where ignorant armies clash by night.”
The image, in reality, of the terrain of Norman’s novel, or at least that of the killing fields across the way from the immediate Nova Scotia location, where the horror of the war for residents mourning their losses is heightened by the impact of the so-called Spanish flu, whose lethality competed with that of the war and in fact claims the life of one of the novel’s principals.
Though for all the ever-present war and flu, they’re not front and center in the novel, whose immediate focus is the mystery of why a woman puts three bullets into her groom on her wedding night – or more precisely, into one of her husbands, with her being married twice. And indeed the novel opens with her trial, which newspaper reporter Toby Havenshaw has been dispatched to cover, with the bizarreness of the situation heightened by a whale that has washed ashore and into whose blowhole the accused has stashed her gun.
Enough, just those ingredients, along with the war and the flu in the background, to make for a compelling read, but the action is further intensified when the accused, who’s not been incarcerated, takes off with the court stenographer, a veteran who has been traumatized by what he endured in the war. And not just he who has been traumatized, but Toby’s wife, Amelia, a surgeon who has ministered enough to the war’s dead and dying to tell Toby upon her return that she's been “changed” by it.
Saying more would give away too much, just suffice to say that in addition to the reference to Arnold’s poem, there are other literary references suggesting larger concerns of the novel, including, with the whale, “Moby Dick,” and, with the name of the stenographer being Lear, perhaps Shakespeare. Further, with the last name of the accused being Frame and the word’s alternative meanings of enclosure or unjust accusation, there are hints of larger concerns there as well. But to my mind those possible concerns, if they're in fact there, aren’t as fully realized as they might have been, given the novel's brevity, which also made for some occasional disjointedness for me. Also, it was unclear to me at times, with an absence of stated attribution, who was speaking.
Still, an estimable accomplishment, Norman’s novel, which with its depiction of the flu had me reflecting on how thankful Amelia and the medical establishment back then would have been for a vaccine like the one developed in our time for Covid, whose tragedy was compounded by how so many of the deaths could have been prevented but for intransigent anti-vaccine stupidity.

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