“In the four-poster bed, my employer’s wife, Kala Murie, lying beside me, the world seemed in perfect order. It was four o’clock in the morning, March 13, 1927.”
So begins The Haunting of L., the mesmerizing new novel by Howard Norman, author of The Bird Artist. Narrator Peter Duvett tells a story of adultery, chicanery, and multiple murders in a flat voice that rides uneasily over the surface of visceral emotions. The young photographer’s assistant has stumbled into a world that is very much out of order.
Norman has created a cabin-fever dream of a novel. Shut together in nearly deserted hotels are the figures in a love triangle, each fleeing something or someone. Photographer Vienna Linn is on the lam from a rich and ruthless patron, who hires him to photograph train wrecks—after the photographer makes them happen. A man of chilly temperament and courtly manners, Linn has married a beautiful, passionate woman, Kala Murie. She lectures on “spirit photographs,” in which the souls of the dead appear (while developing) to haunt the living. Peter, escaping memories of a family tragedy in Halifax, takes a job as Linn’s assistant. Within days of his arrival, Peter becomes Kala’s lover and learns of Linn’s murderous occupation. Almost inexplicably passive, he is drawn by Eros, repulsed by Thanatos. But as threats multiply from every direction, Peter more firmly casts his lot with them.
Norman deftly constructs a puzzle, offering us droplets of information, carefully timed. The moral terrain shifts treacherously. Everyone bears different shades of guilt. Displaced, on the move, these damaged souls have no moral anchor. They rationalize; they compartmentalize. Linn considers himself an “artist.” Peter agonizes about his culpability while exhibiting a dangerous passivity. Kala searches for answers in an oddly illuminating book on spirit photography. These multidimensional characters in their finely nuanced relationships are surrounded by eccentric and vivid minor figures.
Peter’s concrete reporting also creates a lively sense of daily life and manners. But fear snakes just underneath the tranquil surface of the prose. Who will live and who will die? Who will find redemption, who be fatally contaminated by evil? The answers, when they come, are complex and satisfying.