This is a dark and complex story written in gentle almost lyrical language dealing with (well ‘yes’) deception but also with loss, greed and redemption. Mostly it has to do with the facility of time to clarify life’s events. The novel begins with a quote from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “But the child’s sob curses deeper in the silence than the strong man in his wrath.” I had to look up this quote because it is not familiar to me. It turns out to have been taken from a poem dealing with child labor or, from a broader stand point, it deals with the loss of childhood … of being a child drawn into the adult world without first given a chance to grow up sheltered from grown up concerns.
At the beginning of the story eighty year old Livvy Higgs is given a present by a little boy living next door who has befirended her. The gift is a framed picture of Livvy but at first she does not recognize her own image which is that of an an old woman, shriveled with age and infirmity. She is confused and then angered by the realization that the rivulets of time have carved their jagged scars into her face and that hers are the features of a woman near the end of a long life. The setting is present day Halifax in the dead of winter and Livvy settles into her house as a winter storm rages outside. She sleeps fitfully and experiences a number of miniature heart attacks that set off a sequence of dream-like memories that replay a half forgotten childhood.
In each chapter there are lovely transitions in time and place shifting from the present to the 1930’s and 40’s and from Halifax to a little fishing community on the French Shore of Newfoundland called Sable d’Or (Golden Sands). Livvy’s earliest memories are of following her mother, Cecile among the dunes of the golden sands as her mother spews out an angry litany of resentment against her husband Durwin who has lead her from a quiet life with her mother in Halifax to this isolated community where she knows no one and does not even speak French, the local language. She seeks consolation in the beauty of the ocean and beaches and the green, leafy wilderness. However her bitterness rules her life as she suspects she has been tricked into a loveless marriage to bring about some sort of financial objective engineered by Durwin and her mother in Halifax. From the start there are mysteries and lies that Cecile cannot figure out and which little Livvy never has a chance to sort out as she is orphaned when her mother suddenly dies. She is effectively orphaned because her father is cold and preoccupied with his business affairs as the principal merchant in the community and simply not involved with her life.
In the meantime returning to the present, Livvy’s youth washes over her as she lies ill in her snowbound house finally trying to make sense of her childhood. Between episodes of pain and half consciousness she remembers finding comfort with the family of a neighbour Missus Louis who offers motherly shelter and solace But Missus Louis holds a secret too. She also relives moving to Halifax during the war years to live with her Grandmother Creed who also carries around a heavy burden of secrets and lies and for whom Livvy never feels anything but wary suspicion.
There are no worries for the reader, if you go along for the ride all is revealed. Also, there is a harmonious link to the present day in Livvy’s relationship with Gen, her young neighbour next door, a single mother of a severely asthmatic little boy (the same little boy,Rodney who gave Livvy the photo at the beginning of the story). Gen is struggling through her last year at university and is in a great deal of menacing trouble involving illegal drugs. Gen is a kind person who keeps an eye on Livvy, runs her errands and makes sure she has enough groceries in the house. Gen’s compassion is the thin thread that keeps Livvy tied to this world reassuring her that amid the troubles and the deceptions there is kindness and love. As you read this book you come to realize that the deception of Livvy Higgs is really self-deception. The young Livvy may have decided long ago that there is evil in this world; that there is the good on one side and the bad other, that there is just the black and the white and no grey, that the sea and the sand never meet on the shingle and that hatred and love are simply opposites. The Livvy she becomes realizes that such simplicity does not exist and that there is change, personal salvation and good things surrounding her both past and present.
Some very nice scenes in this book involve wartime Halifax which is filled to the bursting point with soldiers and sailors getting ready to go overseas and others just back from near death experiences. There is an historic element to the novel that shows the tension between the citizens of Halifax and these over-excited, nervous interlopers who are getting ready to go to war, which I found both credible and interesting. The other remarkable setting for this book is the French Shore of Newfoundland of which so little is written. It is a place that has a connection to the French Islands of St Pierre and Miquelon and the France of the Old World; a mixture of the Basques the Bretons and the Normans . (A good account of the origins of that world is found in, Françoise Enguehard’s novel, Les Litanies de l’Île-aux-Chiens. ) The French who inhabited that shore were abandoned by France and left to the mercy of English merchants such as Durwin Higgs, Livvy’s father. I think it was very brave of Donna Morrissey to attempt to evoke that place and that time.
In summary, what makes this a good book is the ebb and flow of the narrative that follows the way we naturally deal with memory in so much as it is a river forever changing and forever in motion. So the trick to enjoying the book is to read it with not too much analyzing … go with the flow as the author lets us in on all the secrets by the time the novel comes to its satisfying conclusion. I was a bit taken aback at first by the huge gap of time between Livvy’s younger years and this time of reflection taking place when she is her eighties. There are only a few paragraphs devoted to about sixty years of living in between. However that was the ‘Happily Ever After’ time, which we can all agree is wonderful but boring. (I mean really and truly who would want to follow Elizabeth Bennett to Pemberly where she and Mr. Darcy would, we imagine, unleash their suppressed lust and make babies forever there being no other successful form of contraception at the time aside from abstinence). All we need to know is that Livvy eventually found the love of her life and now as her life comes to a close she is reconciled to that piece that she had never figured out, her turbulent childhood.
This is a good book because the story is told very well.