In her latest novel, Margot Livesey spins a luminous tale of what happens to a family after three teenage siblings discover a young man unconscious in a field. Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang, waiting for an after-school ride from their father, decide to start walking down the Oxford country roads toward home. It’s a mellow September day in 1999; the roads are tranquil, bordered by fields full of cows and barley. Then, “Zoe … spotted something through the hedge. She had a gift for finding things: birds’ nests, their mother’s calculator, a missing book, a secret.”
What the three siblings find is the man, bloodied and barely breathing. They act quickly to get help, but this moment of mutual discovery lingers long after for each of them. Matthew develops an active curiosity in the police case; Zoe explores her effect on the opposite sex and embarks on a dubious relationship with an older man; and Duncan, adopted as a baby, decides to try to find his original mother.
Livesey’s language is crystalline-clear and immersive, replete with vibrant imagery and echoes that play particularly effectively in her portrayal of Duncan, whose vivid imagination stymies him during class. As he tells Matthew, “ ‘I’m following … but then the teacher says electrons orbit each other, and suddenly I’m picturing them instead of listening.‘ ”
When he was a child, Duncan would show his drawings to his grandmother, his earliest exposure to art criticism. “… [S]he would reward him with one of her special cough sweets, a purple oval dusted in sugar. ‘Your pictures emanate,’ she told him. He asked what that meant, and she said, ‘They reach out to people. They glow.’ ” Soon after he and his siblings make their gruesome discovery, he answers an ad for a dog needing a new home and meets Lily, a black Labrador who sniffs Duncan’s hand and then holds out her paw to him: “The invitation was clear. He felt the rough pads, the prick of nails. Lily emanated.” In true Livesey fashion, Lily proves to be the transformative element that enters the siblings’ lives just when they need her most: Lily, it transpires, is an excellent communicator.
What Duncan wants to do as an artist is “‘make pictures where a lot is left out but people fill in the details.‘” And it is visual detail that Duncan longs for when he decides to trace his birth mother. “ ‘Everyone else in my life I can picture even when they’re dead,‘ ” he tells his mother, Betsy. “ ‘I can see Grandpa’s scar, Granny’s nose — but when I think about her, there’s no picture. Zoe has your lower lip, your hands, and Matthew has Dad’s hands. I don’t have anyone’s hands.‘ ”
Matthew, meanwhile, pursues a persistent acquaintanceship with Detective Hugh Price, who proves surprisingly resilient when it comes to responding to Matthew’s questions regarding a criminal case. Previously, Matthew had been involved in more teen-like behavior, taking certain delight in “staging odd happenings: an anarchic egg-and-spoon race at sports day; a stall outside the gym selling artisanal paper clips; an imaginary country inserted on the map in the geography classroom. Six weeks had passed before anyone noticed Wallenia, complete with mountains, lakes, and a capital city, overlapping Bulgaria and Romania.”
When he turns his focus to the police case, Matthew’s attention to specifics is equally honed; to his credit, Detective Price handles the situation with aplomb, taking Matthew’s concerns seriously and treating him with respect. “ ‘People talk about locked room mysteries,‘ ” he tells Matthew at one point. “ ‘[B]ut the ultimate locked room is another person’s brain.‘ ” Price also reveals a quietly wry sense of humor: when Matthew brings in a few stray items that he found in the field — a bus ticket, a St. Christopher medal — Price politely requests permission to take Matthew’s fingerprints for the record. “ ‘If you were planning a life of crime,’ the detective said, ‘I’m afraid this will make it harder.’ ”
Zoe, who arguably gets the most benefit from Lily’s wisdom, struggles with the realization that all is not well in her parents’ relationship while embarking on one of her own. Her erratic, infrequent tendency toward out-of-body experiences during which she finds herself slipping “between the teeth of time” is a treasured secret until she’s with a new beau and perceives that that ability might threaten the terrestrially-bound version of her life: “Suddenly she noticed that the waitresses were slowing, the customers silencing. She held on to the edge of the table. Stay, she begged. A low humming filled her ears. Then the wood was once more hard beneath her fingers; the bric-a-brac of conversation from nearby tables returned. He was watching her, eyebrows slightly raised. Had he noticed her tiny absence? The idea was both pleasing and terrifying.”
Ultimately what keeps Livesey’s novel aloft is that it is full of kindnesses — Betsy’s loving, logistical support of Duncan’s pursuit of his origins; the candidness with which Price responds to Matthew — as well as Livesey’s precisely evocative words. At one point, Duncan tears a handful of his sketches in half, “enjoying the decisive sound of fibers parting.” Like so many other moments in this novel, that description nails the moment, the character, and the elemental aspect of the book in one fell, satisfactory swoop.
By Margot Livesey
Harper, 272 pp., $26.99
Daneet Steffens is a journalist and book critic. You can follow her on Twitter @daneetsteffens.