BOOKS: North Country Passion

Set in Newfoundland, The Bird Artist resembles Italian opera

Margaret Handles is a rarity in recent serious fiction, a throwback to the larger-than-life heroine. She's a regular Annie Oakley, shooting up the town. When her lover brings around a framed photograph of the girl his parents have arranged for him to marry, Margaret draws her revolver and pulverizes the picture. Two more shots follow, with greater consequence to the plot of Howard Norman's startling, ambitious novel, The Bird Artist (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 289 pages; $20).

Margaret is drunk much of the time, but the whiskey does not seem to dull her mind, her ability to utter home truths or...

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