Howard Norman's "The Museum Guard" is a nice little book that, shuddering and straining like a tired, ancient engine pulling an absurd weight, tries to address a very big theme. The problem is that for all his measured, carefully calibrated prose and sensitive details, Norman -- the author of National Book Award finalist "The Bird Artist" -- never makes it exactly clear what that theme is.
"The Museum Guard," set in Halifax on the eve of World War II, is a murky cloud of ideas about the significance of identity, about the way personal and larger historical fates merge, about the horrors of the Holocaust and the feelings of helplessness and guilt that it has engendered. Ideas are everywhere in "The Museum Guard," but they don't cling in any satisfying or coherent way to the narrative: They're like random dust motes hoping to find something -- a bit of character motivation, perhaps, or a startling turn of events -- to settle onto.
DeFoe Russet is the likable, well-meaning narrator, a museum guard who expresses himself with heartfelt simplicity. "Look how lovely she is," he says, musing over the subject of one of the pictures in his museum, "Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam," a painting that will achieve monumental -- and tiresome -- significance over the course of the book. "Look with what sorrow, tenderness, and detail he has painted her. If he was not in love with her when he started the painting, surely he was when he finished." DeFoe himself has fallen madly in love with Imogen Linny, the caretaker at the local Jewish cemetery, a girl who continually rejects his advances. Imogen ultimately floats away from DeFoe, becoming obsessed with the figure in the painting, convincing herself that she is that woman. She decides she must go to Amsterdam to live out the destiny she believes the painting has preordained for her, despite news reports that Hitler is exterminating Jews all across Europe.
Although she was not raised in the Jewish faith, Imogen had a Jewish mother, and her need for identity seems to be intensified by the creeping realization that her people are in grave danger. But what's not clear is why two local townspeople -- an art history professor and the museum's curator -- feel so compelled to help Imogen get to Amsterdam. After Imogen announces that she's desperate to spend a night with the painting, the professor urges DeFoe to steal it for her. Why? "There's an emotion to all of this, bigger and more important than who participates in it. There's a simple way to take the painting from the Glace Museum. And in the end, everyone might be better off if it's stolen, who can tell? Who can predict?" In the universe of "The Museum Guard," that's as good a reason as any for stealing a painting.
Sulky, insensitive Imogen is difficult to sympathize with -- and it's impossible to understand why her supporters so blithely pack her off to dangerous Amsterdam simply to feed her delusion. Eventually, the museum's curator realizes the mistake he's made: "Perhaps these moments of Imogen Linny's highest engagement in life coincide with the century's most abject dedication to terror," he says. That's surely supposed to be the book's key statement, a heavy-duty rumination about identity, fate and the horrors of history. But it's only a partially formed idea, meagerly supported by the contrived little story banked around it. Maybe it's a sketch for a painting, but there's no way it's the full picture.