Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1938. Orphaned at the age of nine by a zeppelin crash, DeFoe Russet grew up in a hotel under 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 ‘opposites at life’. By night, DeFoe spends his time trying to keep the affection of Imogen Linny.
When the Dutch painting ‘Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam’ arrives at the museum, Imogen becomes obsessed and abandons her life in favour of the ennobled one she imagines for its subject – even though being a Jew in Amsterdam is becoming more and more perilous as the clouds of World War 2 begin to gather.
I’ll say it now – this is not a happy book. While there are certainly many warm, happy and even funny moments, the book is overall actually quite unsettling. Much of it is relatable and familiar, and yet as the novel (and time) progresses the threat of war and the larger events of the novel itself loom over the residents of Halifax. Listening to the radio late at night, for example, turns into religious following of Ovid Lamartine, a Canadian reporter in Europe, as he discusses the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe.
The smaller details make this novel what it is. There is a huge amount of drama, heartbreak, betrayal and moral uncertainty in the book – all of which is countered by Norman’s incredible ability to bring the banal to the forefront. DeFoe’s coping mechanism is ironing – scenes of great drama are softened by piles of crumpled laundry. The Museum Guard paints the picture of a world dangerously close to destruction, and yet this isn’t the focus; in fact the novel ends before the war starts. There’s something poetic in this – we are left with the same sense of impending doom that the characters experience throughout the novel.
The way the novel ends and the setting leaves the reader in a very strange position – we cannot feel much hope for the characters, and the novel doesn’t give us any reason to have any; we know what is about to happen to the world in general, and any predictions we can make about the characters are not positive ones.
This is a very short review, I know, but this book really does speak for itself. The plot is incredibly odd, and yet remains real and raw. Norman has honestly left me speechless, and that’s definitely a good thing.
See you soon,
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I couldn’t think of (or be bothered to find) a good gif for this, so I’ll leave you with my favourite quote from the book instead;
Life is full of dramas of the soul’s estrangement and reconciliation.