This is a short novel and a quick read, but it is jam packed with big ideas. The book starts with of 9 year old Defoe's parents in an accident. Whilst his uncle Edward heads off to the crash scene, Defoe is left with his wife, Altoon Markham, who calms the child by teaching him to iron shirts. Edward becomes Defoe's legal guardian and he lives in the hotel with him.
Fast forward 20 years and Defoe and his uncle are both museum guards in the Glace museum in Nova Scotia. They both still reside in the same hotel, and appear to be close, although very different. Edward leans towards drinking, gambling, womanising and has a very lackadaisical attitude to work, whereas Defoe is conscientious to the extreme and takes his duties seriously.
All the more strange then that we know from the first page of this book that Defoe stole a painting from the museum. We actually learn this before we learn of his character, thus the rest of the book becomes an observation of how he steals this painting, and for what end?
This is only half the story though. Imogen Linny is the catalyst for everything. She met Defoe at the museum, and they begin a relationship,although this is characterised by a lack of intimacy and Imogen's constant headaches and need to think. She is obsessed with the ennobling aspects of art and spends a long time pondering the phrase "the estrangement and reconciliation of the soul". This leads to a major obsession with a particular painting in the museum, and actually starts to believe she is the woman in the painting.
All this is set against the backdrop of WWII and the rising tide of anti-semitism and fascism in Europe. The disintegration of human reason is displayed both in the approaching horrors from Germany, and the disintegration of Imogen's reason. This is brought to a horrific collision at the conclusion of the book, although the ending is a little ambiguous.
The writing instills a sense of impending doom and melancholy all the way through and the characters, although so odd, are actually believable aswell.
I think that to get a full understanding of this book I will need to read it again with a close eye, but essentially this is a novel about obsession. Defoe and Imogen are both obsessed to a point where it affects their lives, Defoe with Imogen and Imogen with the painting. It also raises questions about art and its relevance to modern society, particularly with ideas of art being a personal experience. It is only what you make it and it effect on you completely depends on how you respond to it.
I think my thoughts here are a bit simplistic but it seems to be the only way I can phrase it after a first read. I will read it again, and I may return to this when I have. But i would recommend this book and I will be seeking out more Howard Norman books.