I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place
by Howard Norman
Fear not: Howard Norman's slim new book is not another deadly earnest, allegedly inspiring tale of terminal illness. Subtitled "A Memoir," it might more properly be labeled a collection of autobiographical essays. Each of its five essays focuses—if that's the right word—on a "rough-patch" in a different decade of Norman's life, from the mid-1960s to the mid-2000s. No matter what you call it, though, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place is an amazing, one-of-a-kind read.
The title comes from an Inuit folktale about a man transformed into a goose. At summer's end, the man-goose wants desperately to remain home and not join the other geese on their journey south. But to stay would be to die, and he finally bows to necessity, crying "I hate to leave this beautiful place" as he takes flight. It's a sweet fable, and Norman never cheapens it by offering an interpretation or explaining its relevance to his own life story—not even in the title essay.
Therein lies the brilliance of Norman's narrative strategy. His stories do go somewhere, and as much as you would like to savor his prose you end up reading as fast as you can to see how things are going to turn out. But Norman's narratives advance more in the manner of poetry than prose, through allusion, repetition, and accumulation of concrete detail. It's a mode of storytelling more akin to Asian literature or Inuit folklore than Western prose, but it seems effortless and natural in Norman's hands. Certain images, phrases, incidents recur at unexpected intervals: Peter Lorre, sleeplessness, the sum $666, water birds of various sorts, a ghostly Confederate soldier. The overall effect is, as Hemingway said of his own writing, "to make people feel something more than they understood."
This book is fantastically erudite but never in a showy or condescending way. Norman makes casual reference to Urdu poetry and ornithological lore, for example. If you're already in the know, well, good for you; but you'll get the drift even if you know nothing about Asian literature or the Canadian arctic. In fact, you might even be moved re-read Robert Frost or to seek out Kawabata's Sound of the Mountain.
I tore through I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place in a few hours and am more than half-tempted to return to it immediately. If the copy I just read were my own, I would re-read it at once with a sharp pencil and pad of sticky notes to hand. But I must let it pass, no matter how much I hate to see it go.
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Review by Don Beistle