The whole who-shot-whom-and-why thing isn’t the main reason to read Margot Livesey’s new novel, “Mercury,’’ although it does walk and talk like a crime novel. A cloud of foreboding breathes over nearly every page. The narrator is given to dropping dire hints, such as, “I wish I did not have to bring Jack into this story, but without him there would be no story,” and, “If only I had stood firm, my story would end here,” and “How could any of us have known what would come of their conversation on that warm October afternoon?” There’s even a grand Chekhovian wink. From the moment we read, “If there was a gun, I argued — at the time it was only a metaphor — then it was loaded by genes and habits,” we begin bracing ourselves for the eventual bullet to hit its mark.
But in the end our interest derives less from the piecing together of clues and practical facts than from the surprisingly moving voice of the narrator himself, a phlegmatic optometrist named Donald, who embodies the question of how who we are can shape what happens to us.
The author, like her protagonist, is a native of Scotland who long ago settled in the Boston area, and her writing retains its Scots cadences. In “Mercury,’’ as in her previous work, Livesey’s prose has a brusque sensuality: It reads lucid and forthright and lean. Yet unlike her seven earlier novels, this one is anchored in the United States and populated predominantly with Americans, and more than anything it’s Donald’s acute and bemused awareness of his difference, his essential incongruity, that gives the book its emotional heft. Also its real intrigue. Laying aside the matter of felonies, culpabilities, and legalities, what seems to bemuse Donald most is the enigma of his own rather distant nature.
How much of this can he chalk up to cultural heritage? He seems eager to locate his perceived shortcomings as products of his native culture. Thrift, industry, and integrity are Scottish values, he informs us from the outset, and he speculates that his childhood in Edinburgh might have “inoculated me against American optimism.” Yet he can’t help wondering whether there’s more to it. He reveals, for instance, that as a baby he didn’t smile until he was almost eight months old, “and then was miserly with my new skill.” It does beg the question: How much of his remoteness might be the result of an innate deficit of warmth or willingness to connect? How much might be simply him?
The question feels important because, as we learn early on, Donald is burdened by a persistent and particular sense of guilt. Not only is he a poor listener, he tells us; he is also a poor observer, capable of being oblivious, myopic, “ostrich-like.” Worse, he is given to hiding. He recounts times when, faced with the imminent rupture of relationship — one involving a childhood best friend, another involving a girlfriend — he coped by going silent, by vanishing.
When we meet him, Donald is living in a suburb of Boston with his wife, Viv, who once harbored dreams of being a champion horsewoman and now manages a riding stable, and their two school-age children. Grieving the recent death of his father, he says, has made him even more than usually remote. Indeed, Viv tells him he’s “like a man in a space suit. Everything has to make its way through layers and layers to reach you.” The analogy is accusatory. More condemning is his response: He simply nods.
Just what is going on between these two? We are informed that a chasm has opened between them, which Donald blames equally on his own inattention and Viv’s increasing obsession with a new boarder at the riding stable, a promising thoroughbred named Mercury. Various uneasy details accrue: a break-in at the stable; a falling-out between Viv and the stable owner; a flirtation between Donald and a patient who may be losing her sight. Traps are laid, cameras installed, funds fudged, secrets kept. A weapon procured.
In constructing a narrator who is at once transparent (he reveals so much of himself, his limitations and his puzzlement over them, to the reader) and opaque (he is frequently emotionally unavailable to the people around him and even to himself), Livesey roots tension not just in the bones but in the very marrow of the book. In the end, this is not so much a crime novel as a novel about a trial: the story of one man’s austere endeavor to hold himself to account.
By Margot Livesey
Harper, 319 pp., $26.99
Leah Hager Cohen is the Barrett professor of creative writing at the College of the Holy Cross.