I was undecided about Billie Livingston’s novel at first. There was something about the jacket that made me think it might be a little slushy, a little too ‘heartwarming’. Then once I’d started it, every character seemed to have so many punches thrown at them that I faltered again but Livingston somehow managed to draw me in to this story of a couple, struggling to deal with the worst tragedy life can deal a parent. Maggie and Ben have separated after losing their child, each of them trying to find a way to cope, neither of them managing to do so.
Ben is a chauffeur, ferrying around the rich and not so famous while Maggie cleans houses for elderly women and keeps them company. Both have faced a great deal of difficulty in their lives. Ben’s mother walked out on the family when he was ten, unable to put up with his drunken father, leaving Ben with his younger brother now constantly in some kind of trouble. Maggie’s parents were killed in a car crash when she was fifteen leaving her and her older brother Francis to fend for themselves. Regularly rescued by nuns from the neighbourhood bullies, Francis has become a priest albeit one incapable of remaining celibate or sober. Ben and Maggie are dancing in their kitchen, a little the worse for wear, on Ben’s thirty-fifth birthday when their two-year-old son falls from a window. When the novel opens, Ben is on a psychiatric ward with a bullet hole in his head while Maggie is attempting to find her way back into employment. Returning from her first interview, she finds that Francis has disgraced himself, inadvertently becoming a YouTube star into the bargain. Livingston’s novel teases out Ben and Maggie’s stories raising the hope that somehow these two will find a way back to each other.
Livingston deftly weaves vivid memories from their childhoods and their life together into Ben and Maggie’s alternating narratives. Of the two Maggie’s is the more engaging with some star turns from her brother Francis, the deeply flawed priest adored by his parishioners despite his drunken YouTube hit. Maggie’s memories of her little boy are particularly poignant but Livingston steers well clear of the sentimental keeping her narratives sharp and gritty. For me there was a bit too much in the way of misery for both of these characters but it’s leavened with a few hefty helpings of redemption and a little dark humour. Altogether an enjoyable read, and not in the least bit slushy.