Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Totalled Recall

Memory takes a holiday in Margot Livesey's latest novel

By Chris Wright

MARCH 6, 2000: 

Climbing the stairs to novelist Margot Livesey's Cambridge apartment, I was expecting the worst. She had called me that morning to tell me she'd been in an accident the previous night -- a New York cab in which she had been a passenger had rear-ended another vehicle. On the phone, she said something about "teeth" and looking "a bit strange."

At the risk of sounding unsympathetic, this seemed almost fitting. An author hurts her mouth in a car accident in the midst of a tour to promote a book whose plot is set in motion by a car accident that renders a woman unable to articulate her past -- it's a very Livesey-ish twist. Her four books to date -- three novels and a collection of short stories -- have been smart, unnerving, and even comical in their use of this sort of grim irony.

Her books are also suspenseful -- Livesey hits you with a What next? on almost every page. So it also seemed fitting that I should find myself wondering, with some apprehension, what exactly she meant by "a bit strange."

Whatever you do, I think to myself, don't laugh.

As it turns out, Livesey's injuries are not as grave as I'd imagined. Besides a small cut on her lower lip, and an almost imperceptible lisp, she shows little evidence of her taxicab trauma. She has an open, friendly face and a head of wavy dark hair -- certainly not a look you'd call "strange." But then, Livesey, 46, is as good at defeating expectation as she is at building it. Which is precisely what makes reading -- and meeting -- her such an interesting experience.

"I like E.M. Forster's remark: every book should have a mystery to it," Livesey says, relaxing at a table in her sunny dining room. "I really aspire to that. I want to write something that will make you want to turn the pages, that will have, if you will, an entertaining surface but also have darker preoccupations and themes."

Livesey is one of those writers whose work hovers between literary fiction and psychological thriller. Reading her, you don't know whether to rub your chin or bite your nails. In this regard she is often compared to such highbrow mood-makers as Ian McEwan and Patricia Highsmith. But there is a quirky wit to Livesey's work that is all her own. For all its eerie intrigue and psychological depth, it often reads like a gothic comedy of manners. "I do aspire to be funny," she says. "I don't know if that comes across to other people."

In person, Livesey is remarkably good humored, albeit in a deadpan way. She speaks with a crisp English accent -- which is in itself a bit strange, given that Livesey is Scottish. Or maybe it's not so strange: Livesey has spent a good deal of her adult life in England, and she continues to divide her time between Boston and London. Beyond this, her accent says more about her social and educational background than it does about her geographical origins.

Born in a quiet village on the fringes of the Scottish Highlands, Livesey had what might be called a solid upbringing. Livesey's father, the son of a clergyman, was "a tweedy figure" who taught math and geography at a private boys' school. Her mother, Eva, died when Livesey was two, an event that Livesey has described as a defining point for her. "I have no memory of my mother," she says, "and yet I am aware of her influence in my life."

Despite this early loss, Livesey led a sheltered childhood; she attended a posh academy for girls, which, she says, slipping into a slight Scottish burr, "had a Miss Jean Brodie quality, including the ghastly uniform I had to wear." In her teens, she crossed the border into England -- "a big deal" -- to study philosophy and English at York University.

True to the family tradition, Livesey seemed headed straight for Tweedsville. It wasn't until she left for North America, in her 20s, that she began to stray from this course. "I was dating someone who lived in Toronto and I started coming here to be with him," she says. "You could say I came here for love and stayed for work."

Livesey has often written about the crazy things people do for love, and her early years in Canada and America -- as a not-so-legal alien trying to find employment -- might very well fall into the "crazy" category. For years Livesey held a string of dead-end jobs, including a stint packing incense in what she describes as "a Hare Krishna factory." She started working there because they offered free lunches, she says, and quit because those lunches came with compulsory prayer. "I lasted four days."

All this is a far cry from Livesey's current role as one of America's most popular suspense writers. Her swift rise to success is partly due to author Richard Ford, who brought her to the attention of an agent, who brought her to the attention of Gary Fisketjon, editor-at-large at Knopf. Fisketjon was immediately struck by Livesey's originality, and snapped her up. "Her work isn't simply psychological suspense," he says. "At its heart it's very, very literary, and that isn't something many people do these days. She does her own thing."

The first book published by Knopf -- Criminals (1996) -- was actually Livesey's third. It was, says Fisketjon, "the book that put her on the map." Set in Scotland, Criminals is part meditation on crime and passion, part thriller, and part quirky caper. The critics loved it. "Spellbinding," raved the New York Times. "Masterly." And it wasn't just the critics. For a breakthrough book, says Fisketjon, "it made a very good showing" in sales.

Livesey's latest novel, The Missing World, has fared just as well. "Adroitly paced, meticulously plotted, and increasingly suspenseful," gushed the influential trade journal Publishers Weekly, "the novel transcends its genre as psychological thriller." Again, the public has been equally enthusiastic. After a little more than three weeks in the bookstores, the book is in its third printing.

The Missing World, which is set in London, opens with a young couple -- Jonathan and Hazel -- arguing on the phone, "although anyone who happened to hear them might easily have failed to detect the fury that lay behind their pragmatic sentences." Everything seems a bit gray and ordinary at first -- he's griping about a leaky roof and she's griping about his griping -- until suddenly, mid snit, Hazel breaks the news that she was recently hit by a car. And then: "Hazel's steady speech swerved, slewed across several lanes, hesitated at the guardrail, and plunged off into a dark field. 'Elephants,' she whispered. 'Caracals.' " A few pages later she goes on to add, "Barasingha."

Hazel says a lot of this sort of thing through the course of the book, largely as the result of a nasty knock to the head she received in the accident. But babbling, frothing, leg-flailing fits aren't the only consequence. As her doctor says, "Hazel, as far as I can determine, has lost the last three years. Like a large suitcase, she just put it down and walked away. Or, more precisely, she put it down and a thief came by."

In some sense, the thief turns out to be her boyfriend. Jonathan and Hazel, we discover, are estranged -- he having committed some unspecified transgression -- and it quickly becomes clear that he sees Hazel's memory loss as an opportunity to fix the scoreboard. "He and Hazel would have their life together over again, the good parts without the mistakes, yet with the benefit of those mistakes," he thinks. "You can't change back she had said, but you could, you could."

At first we're actually rooting for Jonathan. Who, after all, wouldn't want the opportunity to atone for past sins? But our sympathy doesn't last long. There's something creepy about the way he fawns over Hazel, more so when you realize he is thrilled to bits by her condition. "All that was needed was for him to join Hazel in amnesia," he thinks. But this guy is suffering from a lapse of decency rather than memory -- a kind of moral amnesia.

Being given the chance to tamper with the past -- it's a wonderfully original conceit. But obsessive love, and the dark deeds it incites, is a recurring theme in Livesey's work. Jonathan, an insurance-claims adjuster who keeps bees for a hobby, is very much an ordinary guy -- until, that is, his love pushes him to commit diabolical acts.

"What really interests me," Livesey says, "is what someone who can pass for ordinary will do when presented with extreme circumstances." She doesn't set out to be creepy in her work, she insists, but adds, "Extreme circumstances take us to some pretty creepy places." In The Missing World, for instance, Livesey brings us along for one of the weirdest and most unsettling rape scenes you'll ever read.

But the book is more than a twisted love story; it is also a thoughtful and subtle exploration of memory and the role it plays in our sense of self. There are emotional memories, physical memories, false memories, falsified memories, instinctive memories, factual memories, memories that rise like acid indigestion, and memories that soothe like a mother's hand.

"We tend to think of memory as this articulate thing," Livesey says, "something we can give voice to. But there are all these other kinds -- for instance, you can remember how to do repetitive tasks, like ride a bicycle or make porridge. I think that my sense of how the novel had to be written came from realizing how complicated memory is, that it couldn't be polarized into some binary form, that it had to be more cleverly refracted than that."

Complicated is right. You don't need to read the bibliography at the back of the book to realize that Livesey put her time in at the library for this one. But the bibliography is there, filled with titles like The Anatomy of Memory and The Mind of a Mnemonist -- a fact that might strike dread into the heart of your average fiction reader. "One of the hard things about doing research," Livesey admits, "is that you get so excited about it you can't believe that everybody else won't want to know everything you've just learned. I'm sure I just bored all my friends to tears."

Actually, far from being bogged down in detail, The Missing World is riveting -- a stay-up-half-the-night, take-to-the-bathroom kind of book. Part of the reason for this is that Livesey keeps us guessing. What dirty secrets are in Jonathan's past? Will he be able to keep them from Hazel? Will she remember and kick the bum out? What next? All the while we get the sense that we are heading toward something sinister. What this something might be is revealed to us in much the same way that Hazel's memories come back to her: in trickles, burps, half-tones, dead-ends.

They also come to her as she moves through the world. Indeed, a major theme in the book is the intimate relationship between memory and place. At one point this relationship is made explicit as a character talks about an ancient mnemonic device called the memory palace:

It was a trick the Roman orators used. You stored paragraphs of a speech in a familiar house. Then, when you had to give the speech, you walked through the rooms and there were your sentences, all nicely lined up in atriums and frescoes, waiting to be uttered.

Many of the characters in The Missing World are grappling with memories, trying either to escape them or to reclaim them. Not coincidentally, many of them are involved in housing pickles, too. Jonathan, for instance, fails to tell Hazel about an apartment she had moved into when they broke up. Only by luring her back into their "home," he thinks, can he control Hazel's memories. That gives an ironic twist to one character's assertion that "only forgetfulness can set you free."

The past may be a foreign country, as the saying goes, but that doesn't always help you evade it. If you really want to get away from your past, you move to a real foreign country. This certainly holds true for one of the novel's most intriguing characters, who sometimes seems to speak for the author herself. Freddie -- a London-based African-American roofer given to bouts of inertia, vertigo, and angst -- has abandoned his comfortable middle-class life in the US to escape a mysterious event in his past (again, a car is involved). "Living in a foreign country is a kind of disguise," he explains.

"With Freddie, I was able to use some of my experiences, but in a roundabout way," Livesey says. "There's something about living as an expatriate. You don't have people coming up to you who remember you as a child, or a younger person. You don't have anyone around to correct your version of the past. Your version of the past becomes the version. America is the place you come to reinvent yourself, to better yourself, forget your past."

Is this what Livesey was doing when she came here? "I think that's certainly a feeling that's not unfamiliar to me," she says, laughing at her own evasiveness. "Clearly, someone who writes a novel about amnesia in the age of the memoir is not going to tell you how much of it is autobiographical." She will admit, though, that "my coded autobiography was what made it possible to write The Missing World."

A large part of that code is encrypted in a down-at-the-heels actor named Charlotte, another character for whom memory and place are hopelessly entangled. Charlotte's efforts to escape her painful memories have not so much set her free as cut her loose -- she wanders the streets of London, all but homeless. "She's middle class," Livesey says, "but you feel as though at any moment Charlotte could fall into something else. I'm fascinated by middle-class people who are in danger of falling through the cracks."

For a long time, falling through the cracks was more than just a fascination for Livesey -- it was a real possibility. In the mid '70s, Livesey was as aimless as Charlotte, if not quite so destitute. She toiled in restaurants. She worked at a dry cleaner and in a pharmaceutical factory. ("I never thought before how when you buy a bottle of 100 aspirin there are 100 aspirin in there," she says. "I found out.") Most bizarrely, Livesey worked as "one of those people who sells roses in nightclubs and restaurants." It was, she laughs, "an awful job."

Meanwhile, Livesey was writing short stories, without too much success. "I didn't really know how one could get to a place where one could put writing at the center of one's life," she says, "rather than have it be this passionate hobby." Though she published the odd story (and some of her early stories were, she allows, very odd) in various small magazines, it wasn't exactly a living. If this wasn't quite falling through the cracks, neither was it the kind of career path you'd expect for an educated, talented, middle-class Scottish lass.

Then one day, as Livesey describes it, she had a sort of epiphany: "Somebody said to me, you know, there's this thing in North America, they teach fiction writing in universities and colleges, and they might hire someone like you to do it." Though she found this a "staggering idea," Livesey gave it a shot. "I suddenly realized that there were other possibilities besides asking people how they want their steaks done," she says.

During the next 15 years, Livesey taught in Seattle, Cleveland, and Irvine; at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Carnegie Mellon, Brandeis, Boston University, Tufts, Williams, "and probably a few more that I'm forgetting or repressing." For the past three years Livesey has been the writer in residence at Emerson College. "I teach in the autumn and get the spring to write and faff around," she says. "So it works out very happily for me."

Things are very rarely tied up so neatly, or happily, for Livesey's characters. So far, redemption and salvation have not been her trademarks. The Missing World, in particular, ends on a cruelly hollow note.

"I often think my books are going to be more optimistic," Livesey says. "Or they feel as though they're going to be more optimistic when I start them, then they get darker as I keep working on them and revising them. I'm not certain whether it's because there's a dark streak in me, or because life suddenly seems more impossible than I imagined."

In person it's difficult to imagine Livesey having a dark streak. Possibly life is just impossible. Here she is, after all, having to give an interview the day after a car crash. As she leads me to the door, Livesey tells me she has a dental appointment later in the afternoon, after which she's flying off to California for another reading and another round of interviews. At least it'll be warm, she says, laughing. "Poor me."

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