Novelists’ memoirs are tantalizing because of the clues they provide about sources, and Howard Norman’s I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place certainly echoes his fiction. Norman’s novels are filled with orphans, crime, violence, art, difficult love affairs and the stumbling paths of wounded souls. So is this memoir.
A creative writing professor at the University of Maryland, Norman uses the tight focus of geography to describe five unsettling periods of his life, each separated by time and subtle shifts in his narrative voice. Like the best writers’ memoirs, this one grants memory the distance of irony. Norman the Memoirist is as wryly humorous and soulful as Norman the Novelist.
He grew up in Michigan, where his compelling opening chapter is set. From his bookmobile window, Howard spies his father, who has deserted the family, at an apothecary counter. His brother steals a car, apparently to get caught. The emotional extremity seems almost unreal in stretches of dialogue he can’t possibly remember verbatim. Or can he? He submerges himself so convincingly in the past that outrageous feats of memory don’t seem impossible.
In Nova Scotia, where he drifts after high school, his difficult affair with an older landscape painter ends brutally when her plane crashes in the bleak Saskatchewan snow. His interest in folklore leads him to the Canadian Northwest, where he is driven off by a shaman who hates non-Inuits. He finds a measure of peace with his wife and daughter in Vermont but spends one summer there fighting a mysterious fever coinciding with his confusion about reality’s borders and his concern over an ailing kingfisher and a brother on the lam.
These incidents illuminate the aesthetic and philosophical underpinnings of Norman’s novels, which often take place in a lyrically beautiful natural setting and often in a border zone between the real and the fanciful. The painter’s celebration of bleak landscape, the Inuit delight in surrealism, even the dreaminess of his fever, explain Norman’s art as beautifully as his many literary allusions do. And the young Howard’s image of his off-kilter, askew soul mirrors the struggles of his fictional characters.
He uses that word soul easily. The memoir’s most powerful pages concern the murder-suicide of a poet and her young son who were staying in his Washington, D.C., house. As Norman describes the fury and grief that possessed him afterward, his sustaining beliefs become clearest. His instinct to seek healing through ritual and art, and finally through nature, is something anyone who has read his novels might have guessed – but the originality of his telling here is as surprising as ever.