What a delight to find an author like Margot Livesey who has studied her craft well enough to carry us off into a new, fascinating, and completely believable world. (I can speak of this study of craft thanks to Livesey herself, who has generously divulged some of her secrets in an excellent essay, “The Hidden Machinery,” in The Eleventh Draft.)
As in her previous book, Criminals, here in The Missing World we are carried off from the first sentence, and led firmly and ineluctably (I don’t advise picking up this book late at night) through a maze of twisting passages full of surprises and delights, to an inevitable conclusion.
What is particularly impressive is Livesey’s ability to blend characters who have all the unmistakable complexity, capacity for humor, and sheer ordinariness of everyday human beings with a strong plot and high stakes. Hazel, her heroine, has lost her memory. Jonathan, her former lover, takes advantage of her amnesia to virtually keep her prisoner, his princess in her tower. In Hazel’s rescue comes a remarkably diverse group of characters: an out-of-work actress and the actress’s sister, a nurse; the valiant Freddie, a black American roofer; and Mr. Early, the bald designer.
Livesey pits the ancient forces of good and evil in such a way as to make both into recognizable parts of our everyday lives. Her characters are reflections of us and our inner selves-even the parts we might prefer to deny.
Using denial and self-deception as integral parts of her plot, withholding essential information from the reader as well as from her characters until the necessary moment of revelation, Livesey’s timing—something that cannot be learned—is perfect. The reader, like the characters in The Missing World comes to see the intricate connections between these people’s compartmentalized and deluded selves at exactly the right moment.
In Livesey’s characters we recognize our own evasions and illusions. It is this ability to combine a cool, hard look at human nature with a truly sympathetic gaze that makes Margot Livesey one of our most popular and critically acclaimed contemporary writers.
Margot Livesey’s The Missing World was published by Knopf in 1999.