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book review

Donna Morrissey has a reputation as a writer with an eye on the dark side of human nature.Perry Jackson

A writer I won't name once said that in literary fiction, it's good to have "secrets" in the title' "secrets and women, if you can." He was being facetious, even though it does ring familiar, and the two do coalesce in Donna Morrissey's The Deception of Livvy Higgs. While secrets and lies may lure readers in, they won't hold us; we're after the promise of a journey toward truth and redemption. Livvy Higgs delivers both in waves, shifting through time periods in a distinctive style that is in turns frenetic and haunting.

Livvy is an elderly, cantankerous woman who has little social support and is in ill health. In her own words, she is "too tired for company and too old for ghosts." She was raised on the French Shore of Newfoundland by parents embittered with one another and increasingly estranged. Her needy mother, Cecile, felt betrayed by a selfish husband, Durwin, and was isolated in a town where she couldn't speak the language.

Torn as children are by the confusion of household strife, Livvy received little in the way of useful guidance from her maternal Grandmother Creed, who took sides against her own daughter, Cecile, in the tussles. Now, after a lifetime refusing to look back or open up to anyone, Livvy is suddenly acute with small heart attacks and disorienting memories that leave her dependent on her younger neighbour, Gen. The human company and ghosts have arrived – and they aren't leaving.

The pacing device is an unusual hybrid, but it works. There are thriller-ish elements – the race against time, the disorientation, the high-stakes testing – at the same time as Livvy's (perhaps feigned) detachment over her prognosis: "I sigh again, giving her [Gen] a slight nod. Frantically, she grasps the phone, shakily dialing. What odds[...] Let there be another sweet day if God so desires it. Perhaps another grace awaits me."

Morrissey's decision to tell this story in the first-person present tense was wise. It lends an appropriate immediacy for a tale about someone whose health is in crisis. This approach has the added effect of smoothing transitions between past and present events, so the reader doesn't feel rogue-waved by frequent movement, but is carried instead on a lapping tide.

Like the renowned vernacular architects of the east coast, Newfoundland native Morrissey employs a language as rugged as the landscape, with Livvy's mother "smoking and smoking and watching the sea crumple at her feet," or a "stout wind" blowing through town. Her style is appropriately spare and as fortified as the beach dunes Livvy so loves.

Memory is complex and fascinating material, but is a notoriously unreliable archive. In a late-life interview, literary lion Gore Vidal surmised that life is "an exercise in memory. And the exercise is made more difficult because memory is defective." Morrissey inverts this widely held belief: memory as potentially more factual than whatever myths we end up slipping inside of for protection from the elements.

The Deception of Livvy Higgs is being touted as a younger sister-friend to Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel, but it is both more historical and more contemporaneous. In its reach to develop a kind of metacognition, it relates well to Tumblr pages with the crowd-sourced "letters to my teenage self," or even the Legacy Project which solicits people over 70 years to describe the most important lessons they have learned over their lives. Livvy's deceptions transcend gender, of course – they are indeed universal. But lessons need repeating if they are to be encoded. Readers will gain from spending time with this moving story, by taking away the reminder that no one needs to suffer loneliness "when love was but a truth away."

Stevie Howell is a Toronto writer and editor.