A haunting and haunted fourth novel from Livesey (The Missing World, 2000, etc.), this about a woman whose life is accompanied by invisible “companions” who shape her destiny in ways both helpful and harmful.
Narrator Eva McEwen’s mother Barbara dies on the day of Eva’s birth in 1920. When she's six, playing outside her home in the Scottish lowlands, Eva meets a silver-haired woman and a freckled girl she soon realizes can’t be seen by others. Raised by her elderly father and his sister Lily (the first in a series of characters rendered with extraordinary subtlety and depth), the lonely girl takes comfort from her invisible friends but also realizes that “the presence of the companions in my life was like a hidden deformity: ugly, mysterious, and incomprehensible.” The figures rescue her from menacing gypsies, but they also fling furniture around her room and get her fired from her first job. When Eva becomes a nurse in Glasgow during WWII and falls in love with plastic surgeon Samuel Rosenblum, the companions destroy her chance to marry him. Or do they? Livesey’s precisely calibrated narrative, characteristically cognizant of human complexities and contradictions, reminds us that we are both subject to forces beyond our control and responsible for our lives. It may be that Eva chose to let Samuel go, though she grieves for him even after she marries kind schoolmaster Matthew and bears a daughter, Ruth. Guilt over leaving her father and Aunt Lily further shadows her life, and her mother Barbara’s absence remains an aching wound. The radiant yet unsettling climax suggests that Barbara also had companions, and that Ruth will make her own choice about whether she needs this otherworldly support. This isn’t a ghost story, but rather a searching examination of how we deal with our ghosts. Livesey’s scrupulous prose, lyrical yet classically exact, is the perfect vehicle to convey her multilayered insights.
Pitiless, deeply moving, and terrifying: another flawless work from an uncompromising artist.