TOP 500 REVIEWERon 15 June 2014
NOTE: I have tried not to reveal specific important plot-details, even as I criticize the plotting. Obviously, though, in doing that, I have to reveal some aspects of its organization.
Margot Livesey writes clearly and gracefully, but the sentence-by-sentence writing isn't the problem here. There's a lack of clarity in the conception and what seem like some very arbitrary plot-decisions that really undermine the book's potential power. The narrator, the Eva of the title, traces her life from infancy in a narrative that turns out (in the final section) to be addressed to her daughter. This seems to me a cheap trick, because it immediately becomes clear that information has been withheld from the reader for the sake of suspense and surprise. The problem is that one suspects that the decision to withhold is the author's and not Eva's -- and thus we start to lose confidence in the whole project of the novel. That loss of confidence is serious, for by the beginning of the final section it is not yet clear where the novel is headed, and to feel that we are in fact being manipulated by the author and STILL don't know what's at stake makes us feel cheated of the kind of engagement that it's reasonable to expect a novel to encourage. When an author creates a narrator, the reader should feel that the structuring of the narrative is a matter of the narrator's choices, but in this case it's as if the author imposes her narrative requirements (based on what she thinks will engage her readers) on an ostensible narrator who has no stake, as far as we can see, in these narrative decisions, because HER reader is not "us" but her daughter.
So the problem isn't with the conceit of the ghostly "companions" per se. However, we never quite understand their stake in their dealings with Eva, and it is surprising, again in the final section, to learn that Eva has always had the freedom to dismiss them from her life. Nothing in the earlier part of the novel has suggested that she had such a choice open to her. Also surprising in that final section -- which is far too exposition-heavy, as if the author is feeling the need to clear up what she has failed to make clear earlier -- Eva asks the companions who they are, and she gets an answer. At this point, the reader might be forgiven for feeling that there doesn't seem to be any reason why that question could not have been asked and answered sooner; Eva, after all, has known who her "companions" are prior to commencing her narrative for her daughter and could have revealed the information much earlier -- she has no stake in creating "suspense." So, again, it seems that an authorial decision has been imposed on a narrator for the sake of "mystery" or "atmosphere" -- and as we step back and consider the narrative as what it ostensibly is -- a letter to the narrator's daughter -- it's difficult to see the structuring the story as deriving in any necessary way (rhetorically or psychologically) from Eva herself. Why could Eva not begin, for example, by addressing her daughter from the start? To sum up -- Livesey,the author, imposes HER narrative agenda on a character -- Eva, the narrator -- for whom that agenda makes no particular sense, and the result is muddiness.
Why should we be interested in Eva, whose mother died in childbirth in a death that magpies foretold? She seems obsessed with a need to belong, to be connected, to have a family, and Livesey movingly suggests the intensity of the bond that ties motherless Eva to her father and her aunt Lily, a bond that Eva works hard to maintain even after she leaves Troon, where she has grown up, for a nursing job in Glasgow. And after her father dies, Eva goes to great lengths to maintain her relationship with Lily. Her marriage and pregnancy have no erotic dimension at all -- the sense of a family, of creating a place to belong, and to include others, like her friend Ann and Lily, in that circle, seems to be what she lives for. The question arises: is she crazy? Samuel, the doctor who is her first romantic interest, seems to think so, but the novel doesn't support his judgment. Eva is not the only person who can see the companions, so we have to take them as more than a figment of Eva's imagination. There is something undoubtedly touching in Eva's desire to be connected to people in a familial way, and the presence of the companions suggests that the need to belong is not likely to satisfied within a world that lacks, for want of a better word, a "spiritual" dimension. The novel's historical setting, which encompasses the two World Wars, perhaps suggests a kind of madness in the world of our everyday, so-called "normal" experience for which a clinging to a sense of belonging might be considered an antidote. The idea of a spiritual dimension working to help make the world less painful -- the companions are like quasi-celestial nurses, who parallel Eva's actual work in nursing wounded and disfigured soldiers -- is a promising one: the nurses can't work miracles and neither can the companions, but they can move the furniture; they can help make things more bearable.
So are we to take it that Eva's tale, her "agenda," if you like, is intended to help her daughter Ruth understand the existence of that dimension? Possibly, but as I said earlier, it's not clear that the narrative organization as we have it is particularly efficient at doing that, and that, I believe, is because, no matter what Eva wants in her role as story-teller, Livesey over-rides her, because she (Livesey) wants to tell a suspenseful story with late-breaking revelations. Unfortunately, she can't convincingly do that via the narrator she has created.