Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #99: The Northern Lights by Howard Norman

Sensitively and well-written “coming-of-age” story of life in the frozen lands of northern Manitoba, Canada, and yet somehow the book didn’t pull me in as I had hoped it would.  This is Norman’s debut novel, and he does a good job of conveying the ambience of small village life in the semi-wilds, and the compelling relationship between 14-year-old Noah and his best friend, the artistic and quirky Pelly.

Noah’s father is gone for long periods of time, mapping the interior of northern Canada, while his mother grits her teeth and maintains a sort of household in an old hunting lodge with Noah and Noah’s orphaned cousin Charlotte. Noah’s mother hates every moment of her isolation–and her husband for not noticing, or at least not caring—and hides her anxieties in fantasies about Noah’s ark. When things became too tense at home, Noah takes a mail plane over to Quill, 90 miles away, and stays with Pelly and his guardians, the strong silent Uncle Sam and his Cree wife Hettie. There, Noah experiences village life, gets to know the Cree culture which is partly nomadic and partly assimilated, and works at the small Hudson Pay outpost at the center of Quill’s social life.

All too soon, tragedy strikes, and Noah is left alone to deal with his tortured family life. When it becomes clear that Noah’s father isn’t coming home, his mom packs up and leaves for Toronto with Charlotte. Noah opts to stay with Sam and Hettie, partly for their sake and partly for his own, but ultimately he follows his mother to Toronto, where she has bought an old movie theater called Northern Lights.  Noah begins to put together a new life, but he is no longer the boy he once was.

The problem with this book, I feel, is that Norman’s characters are interesting but underdeveloped. We don’t know the backstories of Noah’s mother or father, or of Sam and Hettie, and why they ultimately do what they do and become who they are. Noah’s character doesn’t share what he is going through, and as we watch him move from one phase of his life to another, we are somehow left unengaged in his life and his future. When I put the book down, I stopped thinking about the story—and to me, that is not a sign of a good book that purports to be more.

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