A story told with help from literature's giants
Margot Livesey enlists the help of Keats, Carroll, Bronte, and Dickens in her latest novel.
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Sean had been married (happily, he thought) when Abigail launched a “relentless” campaign to acquire him. “He knew the syllogisms of romance. He had broken his life apart for her; therefore she must be the love of his life,” Sean thinks. “More recently, though, he had found himself thinking that marriage was not merely an empty ritual. It was a plea for patience on the part of those involved, and for mercy on the part of bystanders.”Skip to next paragraph
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Livesey doesn’t shy away from taboo topics, nor, thankfully, does she use them to add a jolt of cheap adrenaline. Dodgson isn’t there for his mathematics or brilliant wordplay. Dara’s dad, Cameron MacLeod, shares Dodgson’s abnormal fascination with young girls and his hobby of photographing them. Livesey is circumspect with Cameron, who tries for decades to bury his impulses. (This is fortunate, since it’s very difficult for a reviewer to type with a full-on case of the heebie-jeebies.)
But she doesn’t let him off the hook, either. “How do you know?” the adult Dara challenges Cameron, when he tries to defend the author of “Alice in Wonderland” by saying,” but he never harmed [the girls].” She quickly clarifies: “I don’t mean what is the documentary evidence, but how can we be sure what harms a child?”
The final two sections delve into the friendship between Abigail and Dara, which appears faded to almost invisibility by the time Sean moves into Fortune Street. A character likens Abigail to Estella from “Great Expectations,” only to laugh that it’s hardly a flattering comparison. Dickens, as it happens, was Abigail’s grandfather’s favorite writer, from whom the Jewish immigrant strove to learn the important task of “how to be English.”
“More than most people, he told Abigail, Dickens understood how suddenly life can change: one day you can be respectable, the next in debtors’ prison. And the next, back again, in your top hat and gloves.” Abigail can relate: By 15, she’s on her own in a rented room, working two jobs after school and determined to claw her way to college. (Like Pip, she has an anonymous benefactor, but hers is less benevolent than his escaped convict.)
The prospect of a real friend entrances both lonely girls, who find unexpected parallels despite the differences in upbringing. “Each of them, they discovered, had had a version of Eden from which she had been expelled, abruptly and irrevocably, at the age of ten.”
Livesey isn’t interested in neatly tying off loose ends, which can lead to reader frustration when characters have served their purpose and vanish irrevocably. But while the psychological mystery that spurs the novel forward is gripping, it’s her clarity, of both writing and understanding, which elevates the novel. Also, because great last sentences are rarer than hen’s teeth, it must be noted that “The House on Fortune Street” has a doozy.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.