25 Women to Read Before You Die

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 21st, 2002


The Haunting of L.


A review by James Marcus

On the face of it, Howard Norman's fifth book is a nice, comfy historical novel, set in one of those decades most conducive to period detail: the 1920s, with its hip flasks and streetcars and (relative) innocence. From the very beginning, however, the narrator lets us know that something is askew. Waking in the middle of the night, Peter Duvett a photographer's assistant who happens to be sharing his bed with the photographer's wife is stricken with an epistemological unease. "This was natural to my character," he tells us. "It occurred to me that hidden deep inside my sense of the world in perfect order was the fear that the worst was on its way." How right he is. It would be difficult to explain the specific catastrophe in his path, given the author's penchant for intricate plotting and loop-the-loop flashbacks. Suffice it to say that Peter's boss, Vienna Linn, is not only a serial murderer but also an artistic fraud who fakes the apparitions of departed spirits in his photographs and that Peter's lover, Kala Murie, is a true believer in these very images.

In a sense, The Haunting of L. offers a protracted debate about the existence of the soul. But here, too, Norman refuses to play by simple rules. Kala, who's supposed to be batting for the spiritualist team, ultimately seems to view those spectral snapshots as little more than an index of familial dysfunction. Meanwhile, her vicious materialist of a husband is tormented or let's say spooked by the memory of his victims, most of whom he has successively killed and preserved on film. "You cannot begin to imagine, Duvett, what demons occupy my mind," he confesses, "and they each and every one have a mortal's name. Those many faces float in front of my eyes day and night. They lay siege." And what of the meek and malleable narrator? Peter remains caught in the middle, unsure even of his own eccentricities. This makes him the exception in Norman's fictional universe, where everything the plot, the prose, and the very names of the characters is slightly but indelibly strange. There is considerable suspense here, and great depth of feeling, but it's the sheer, melancholic oddity of the book that will haunt most readers to the very end.

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