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Friday, October 2, 2015

Reviews Archive: Donna Morrissey and "The Deception of Livvy Higgs"

Donna Morrissey is a great Canadian author.  Her five novels, all set in whole or in part in Newfoundland, are worth a read.  Here are plot summaries of her first four (from and my review of her most recent book.

Kit’s Law (1999)
It is the 1950s in an isolated outport in Newfoundland.  Nothing penetrates this antiquated existence, as television, telephones, cars, even roads, elude the villagers and the only visitors are fog-bound fishermen.  Here, outside of Haire’s Hollow, lives 14-year old Kit Pitman with her mentally handicapped mother Josie — both women cared for and protected by the indomitable Lizzie, Kit’s grandmother.  The three live a life of some hardship, but much love, punctuated by the change of seasons in the isolated gully where they live.  Then a tragic change in their circumstances brings back an old threat — that Josie be sent to an institution and Kit to an orphanage.  And there is another menace in Haire’s Hollow — the notorious rapist and killer known as Shine.

Downhill Chance (2002)
Clair Gale is the unsinkable heart of the novel, a story of two families during wartime—the Osmonds and the Gales—joined by love, yet torn apart by fear and secrets.  Morrissey blends melodrama, realism and a flair for the comic.  At the book’s core is the unravelling of secrets—and the redemption that truth ultimately brings to the people who inhabit these pages so memorably.

Sylvanus Now (2004)
The time is the 1950s, and the place is Canada’s Atlantic coast at the edge of the great Newfoundland fishing banks.  Sylvanus Now is a young fisherman of great charm and strength.  His youthful desires are simple: he wants a suit to lure a girl—the fine-boned beauty Adelaide—and he knows exactly how much fish he has to catch to pay for it.  Adelaide, however, has other dreams.  She longs to escape the sea, the fish, and the stultifying community.

What They Wanted (2008)
What They Wanted is a sequel to Sylvanus Now.   Morrissey explores both new and familiar terrain: a divided house on the shores of Newfoundland and the equally challenging environment of an Alberta oil rig.  After Sylvanus has a heart attack, family tensions rise to the fore. Sylvie must deal with her feelings of estrangement from her mother, Addie.  Meanwhile, Chris, a natural artist, frustrates his dreams by going to work on the rig.

Review of The Deception of Livvy Higgs (2012)
4 Stars

I was so excited to discover a new novel by Donna Morrissey since I’ve read and enjoyed all of her previous books. Again, she did not disappoint.

Livvy is an octogenarian living in Halifax. As her health fails, her dreams take her back to her childhood and adolescence in an isolated fishing village on the French Shore of Newfoundland where her father owned the general store. We meet Livvy’s ever-suffering mother Cecile whose relationship with her husband can be surmised by her constantly calling him a “’paltry white bastard’” (11); her proud father Durwin whose life seems fueled by rage; her manipulative maternal grandmother, Julia Creed, whose pre-occupation is the importance of outward appearances; and the comforting neighbour, Missus Louis, who provides consolation first to Cecile and later to Livvy.

From the beginning it is clear that there are skeletons in the family closet involving Livvy’s father and grandmother. Durwin accuses Grandmother Creed of cheating him and he tells her, “’you’ll not cheat me again’” (59). Cecile describes her mother as a liar: “’She lies, she always lies. She’s clever like the fox, always setting her little traps, twisting things, making lies out of truth – or truth out of lies . . . ‘” (38). Cecile’s opinion of her husband is no better; she tells her daughter, “’Your father’s like your Grandmother Creed. They think themselves better than everybody else, got chafed necks from their too-high collars’” (12). She accuses him of being a hypocrite and asks him, “’Who else have you tricked with your lies’” (16)? Cecile also thinks of both her husband and mother as cold-hearted: “’she takes everything and gives nothing. Durwin takes nothing and gives nothing’” (42). Furthermore, she thinks they conspired in some criminal activity: “’They’ll burn in hell, I pray they’ll burn in hell. . . . They done something, Durwin and my mother, they done something’” (129). As she shifts between present and past, Livvy tries to determine the truth and reconcile with her past.

The book jacket describes the book as “the Stone Angel of the East Coast” and Livvy is in a position similar to Hagar Shipley’s in Margaret Laurence’s novel – examining her early life. Livvy, like Hagar, is a memorable character, a strong-willed, cantankerous old woman “encroached by age and neglect” (35). Like Hagar, Livvy is also a dynamic character; she realizes that a person “has to believe in [his/]her story in order to live with it, to defend it, if only to [him/]herself. . . . it comes to me that Father, too, believed his story, else he wouldn’t have fought so hard to protect it. And Grandmother Creed. . . . What shame, what shame to suffer such loneliness when love was but a truth away” (270).

The novel addresses several forces (i.e. greed, pride, hate, love, anger) which can serve as overriding motivations since “fixing one’s mind too strongly on something can hatch fear and dread” (94). Livvy mentions that she has learned “how to salvage the most from the sweetest” (10), but she also learns how to salvage the most from the sourest that life has dealt her so she can still feel “sweet, sweet grace” (271).

A book that is entertaining and also gives a glimpse into the human condition is a great read – and this is definitely one of them.