Howard Norman's Final Novel Is A 'Love Letter' To Vermont

Jul 2, 2019

Calais writer Howard Norman says his new novel, The Ghost Clause, will be his last work of fiction. And so he set out to immortalize the things he loves about his Vermont life by incorporating them into the plot.

On the opening page of The Ghost Clause, a youngish couple — Muriel Streuth (an academic) and Zachary Anders (a private investigator) — are at home in their new farmhouse in Calais. Muriel is exhausted; she's just defended her dissertation, which went well but was stressful. So she's drawing a bath while Zachary makes her a cup of cinnamon tea.

We know all of this because our narrator is watching them. They don't realize he's there, because he's not. Well, not in the flesh at least.

"Things should be stated directly, don't you think?" he asks on page 3. And then he explains.

"At the age of forty-eight, I died of a heart attack, an hour out to sea, on May 23, 1994, at the rail of the Bar Harbor, Maine-Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, ferry."

Turns out, our narrator is a writer named Simon Inescort, who had, until recently resided bodily in this Vermont farmhouse with his wife, a painter named Lorca Pell. But he seems to be stuck in what he calls the "ongoingness" — not alive but not quite gone, either.

And so Simon is chronicling the life of the couple who bought the house from his widow, carefully detailing their comings and goings, the warmth and intimacy of their marriage, and their career aspirations. Maybe they'll someday discover the notebooks he's filling with his observations, and treasure discovering what their life looked like from the benefit of objectivity, if not distance.

The Ghost Clause is a novel written in "ghost first person," as it's author, Howard Norman, describes it. Norman, the author of many books and a double National Book Award nominee, got the idea to use this narrative device when his home alarm system kept malfunctioning, setting off the MOTION IN LIBRARY alarm. While he didn't think for a moment that it might be a ghost, it did occur to him that a ghost could be a useful narrator for a novel.

Not at all coincidentally, Norman lives in a farmhouse in Calais. He set The Ghost Clause in his real-life farmhouse, in his real-life town. And all kinds of real-life characters crop up throughout the book, happily recognizable to Vermont readers (and to the characters themselves, presumably).

"I wouldn't mind this book being seen as a love letter to a place, to a house," Norman said recently, sitting in the library where much of the novel's action takes place. Including people who make his Vermont life wonderful felt like a fitting way to give voice to his appreciation, especially because he anticipates that this will be his final novel. Not his final book, but his final work of fiction.

"The nuances of daily life seem to reside in these slight differences that let you know that you're alive and you're alert to these things. I don't think it's a big philosophical disquisition. I think it's purely experiential. And those things are deeply celebratory to me." — Howard Norman

"I've written the novels that I've wanted to write," he explains. "It's a willful and very conscious decision, without any sense of self-deprecation or of drama. It's good; it's healthy; it's clear."

And The Ghost Clause seems, in some ways, an elegy to Howard Norman's own life in Vermont, using a ghost narrator to get beyond the fact that the author himself is still living. There's a central plot that moves the story along: a young child who has gone missing, presumed to be kidnapped. Zachary Anders is the private detective assigned to the case.

But within that story are the love stories of two marriages: Muriel and Zachary, now living in the Calais farmhouse, and Simon and Lorca, with Simon in the "ongoingness" and Lorca in an apartment nearby.

And yet, the throughline is clearly a reflection on place and home and what makes a life. At one point in the book, Simon Inescort writes, "In my life in Vermont, everything I loved most happened most every day." And Howard Norman agrees.

"I'm a person who goes on rounds," he says. "After writing in the morning, say, I'll drive. And I'll stop in and see a friend, go to a bakery, go look at kingfishers. Whatever it is, you become a kind of docent of your own life. And you're guiding yourself to this place and that place.

"So I have these rounds, and there's variations on them. But the deeper variation is that no two days are the same. They can't be, by definition. The nuances of daily life seem to reside in these slight differences that let you know that you're alive and you're alert to these things. I don't think it's a big philosophical disquisition. I think it's purely experiential. And those things are deeply celebratory to me."

Broadcast on Monday, July 1, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.