The Museum Guard drew me in by accident, just like the woman on the cover is being drawn into the open painting. I picked the book up and read the first sentence, “The painting I stole for Imogen Linny, Jewess on a Street in Amsterdam, arrived to the Glace Museum, here in Halifax, on September 5, 1938.” With that, I was hooked on the book’s matter-of-fact tone and mysterious air, so I read it.
DeFoe Russet is a museum guard. Orphaned as a boy, he lives in a hotel with his uncle, who is also a museum guard. DeFoe sticks to a tight daily routine, and collects his thoughts by ironing shirts. Like Nick Carroway in The Great Gatsby, DeFoe is not as worldly-wise as he may pretend, and is searching for something he’s not quite sure of yet. His day-to-day life is safe, routine, and expected: guarding the museum, eating at the hotel or a restaurant, and sleeping after playing some cards with the bellhops. On occasion, he visits Imogen at the Jewish cemetery, where she looks after the gravestones and the cemetery grounds. Imogen is his always-dissatisfied girlfriend, who is plagued by headaches and full of small quirks.
She has become obsessed with the new painting that has arrived at the museum, and with the help of DeFoe’s uncle, gets into the museum at night to look at the painting for hours on end. Eventually, she becomes convinced that she is the Jewess in the painting, and must redeem her meaningless existence by being reunited with the painter, Joop Heijmann, who lives in Amsterdam. As her life spirals out of reality, she asks DeFoe to steal the painting for her. Only then, she believes, will she be cured.
Norman’s 1938 Canada is quiet, peaceful, and strange in ordinary ways. The Museum Guard is definitely a mystery, for Halifax is both incredibly ordinary and torturously hard to understand (similar to Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy). Mystery fills the streets of the small town, and the mind of DeFoe Russet. He’s a simple man with a simple life, who has to clarify when he’s “speaking for himself,” instead of repeating someone else’s ideas. As readers we spend the length of The Museum Guard inside his head, trying to understand the effect the painting holds over Imogen, and watching as she slips through his fingers and out of his life.
The art on the walls of the Halifax museum has an effect on everyone in the story: the question is always which effect it will have. Imogen, DeFoe, Unle Edward, all are connected to the artwork on the walls. All the answers come down to the paintings: Imogen is the only one who actually takes that at face value. In the end, DeFoe’s life is smaller and more cramped — he’s lost more than he’s gained, and World War II is even closer than before.
Not too many happy endings, but that doesn’t discount the value of The Museum Guard. Norman has tucked observations about life and death and love and loss right in the middle of games of cards with the doormen. The book has a sort of haunting, muted intensity that builds throughout the story and ends with an anti-climax: back to normal, everyday life. What, in the end, is the point? I’m not sure, and neither is DeFoe. Though the book may be short on hope, it’s the journey that it takes readers through that is valuable. After all, we live a thousand lives in literature — and some of us may be able to better tackle life after having lived DeFoe’s story.
Published on 18 November, 2015. Last updated on