The House on Fortune Street
By Margot Livesey
HarperCollins, 311 pp., $24.95
The late novelist Iris Murdoch said that literature was meant "to be grasped by enjoyment," a notion that certainly applies to the work of the wonderfully mutable Margot Livesey and her newest novel, "The House on Fortune Street." It is a story about sadness, about our desperate deceptions and lonely trajectories, but this does not diminish the absolute enjoyment it affords. Indeed, it's possible to imagine that this book is exactly what Murdoch meant by the notion that we profit from fiction - even the saddest, gravest works - by our pleasure in it.
A single tragic event sets the novel in motion, but Livesey is interested in the explanations for this event, rather than its consequences. The book is constructed of portraits of four people who come and go from the house on Fortune Street in London's Brixton neighborhood: Sean and Abigail, lovers who live together in the house's top floors; Dara, Abigail's best friend, who occupies the ground-floor flat; and Dara's estranged father, Cameron. As the novel begins, the relationship between the charismatic Abigail, who is trying to get a theater off the ground, and Sean, a Keats scholar stalled mid-dissertation, has floundered. Dara, who works as a counselor at a women's shelter, seems unable to find romantic satisfaction in her life. Cameron struggles to repair the damage to his family caused by a secret he has kept his entire life. Each story sheds light on the next, and our sense of the characters' lives - and their connections to one another - deepens as we go, even as the mysteries of their disengagement are resolved, one by one.
Livesey's work - six novels, including this one, and a collection of short stories - display the marvelous control of a writer who conjures equally well the tangible, sensory world - weather, furniture, kettles on the boil - and the mysteries, stranger and wilder, that flicker at the border of that world. In Livesey's work in general, and certainly in "The House on Fortune Street," we feel behind her characters the thrum of the unpredictable. The considerable suspense in her writing arises not so much from complicated turns of plot as from her ability to project the emotional states of her characters into the universe they inhabit. Felt experience, in Livesey's fiction, has an almost visible resonance, with the world and the person in a singing, vibrating relationship to each other, like notes struck on a triangle and hanging in the air. Even in paragraphs in which nothing actually happens, Livesey can make the blood race.
The novel begins with a letter from a bank notifying Sean that his account is overdrawn and he faces a penalty fee. "He was reaching for the marmalade when he heard a sound at the front door. Thinking Abigail had forgotten something, he seized the letter, thrust it into the pocket of his jeans, and tried to impersonate a man having a leisurely breakfast. But it was only someone delivering a leaflet, one of the dozens advertising pizza or estate agents. . . . In the silent aftermath, Sean couldn't help noticing that his familiar surroundings had taken on a new intensity; the sage-colored walls were more vivid, the stove shone more brightly, the refrigerator purred more insistently, the glasses gleamed. His home here was in danger."
Livesey is a master at the drama of false alarm, at showing how the mind disturbs the equilibrium of any given moment, and it gives her writing enormous tension. "Now Dara drew the willow tree on the far side of the canal with its long, flowing branches; she added a narrow boat, the ducks, and, in the distance, a church spire. She was shading the spire when she heard a soft tearing sound. Two cows, one black and white, one brown, had approached and were grazing nearby. 'Hello,' said Dara, but neither raised its head: all those stomachs to feed. Turning back to the canal, she was in time to see a large black dog, like something out of a fairy tale, bounding along the towpath. It passed her without a glance. As the dog disappeared she heard pounding footsteps. Someone in pursuit? No, the man who came into view, wearing dark shorts and a white T-shirt, was just running. From the stile, Dara had an excellent view of his approach, arms and legs pumping steadily. And then, quite suddenly, he was sprawled at the ground at her feet."
The sound, the black dog, the approaching runner, and finally the stranger's landing, almost literally in Dara's lap, are typical of Livesey's ability to conjure anxiety out of thin air.
A satellite view of the lines that connect the characters in this novel would appear completely random - as our connections in life generally are - but Livesey finds her stories at their points of intersection. Pry up the turf at any such point on the map of people's lives, she seems to suggest, and the deep vault of a story will open up, a window down onto the rolling subterranean landscape of our past. Childhood experience, especially, is a powerful force: Abigail's unstable parents, the death in childhood of Cameron's brother, Dara's own suffering when her father is forced to abandon his family. It is in the nature of human beings to get tangled up in one another's lives, but the future does not come without the past; loving one another, we are at the mercy of everything that has come before, as well as what we imagine for the future. In this beautiful, engaging story of our helpless undoing, the author casts no blame, nor makes any judgment; in "The House on Fortune Street," in fact, nothing seems to separate the fortunate from the unfortunate so much as luck.
Carrie Brown's most recent novel is "The Rope Walk."