Livesey's 'Eva' --Mother matters

September 09, 2001|By M.G. Lord | By M.G. Lord,Special to the Sun

Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey. Henry Holt and Co. 232 pages. $23.

Girls who lose their mothers at an early age do not have easy childhoods. Eva McEwan, the narrator of Eva Moves the Furniture, Margot Livesey's uncanny, affecting new novel, must cope with circumstances that are especially difficult. Just hours after her birth in Troon, Scotland, in 1920, Eva's mother dies from influenza, leaving her father and his unmarried sister, Lily, too grief-stricken to welcome the child. For the rest of her life, Eva celebrates her birthday long after its actual date -- each anniversary a memento mori.

Nor does growing up without siblings in the care of an elderly father make Eva a bubbly, outgoing child. Isolated and lonely, her anguish is relieved by beings she calls "the companions," who might be ghosts or, to a literal, scientifically minded person, figments of her imagination. Although their exact nature is never spelled out, they defy corporeal reality: Neither her father nor Lily can see them. This leads in childhood to a lifelong conundrum. "In my mind," Eva explains, "there was already much confusion between two categories commonly held to be opposites: the living and the dead."

The distinction continues to blur when, during World War II, Eva works as a nurse in a burn unit whose patients have been horribly disfigured. "My face, which I had regarded as such an intimate part of me, seemed different now that I understood how provisional features were," Eva reflects. "I could lose my nose or chin, have cheeks framed by the pale skin of my buttocks, a jaw built from a rib bone, a mouth that refused to stay in the center of my face." She comes to view the life-force as something different from its physical container - affected by it, yet not confined to it.

It's not surprising that Livesey, who herself grew up motherless in Scotland, would explore ideas about life beyond death and what it means to inhabit a physical body. She understands the ache that motherless children have to make sense of their abandonment. But Eva Moves the Furniture, is far from a cloying Touched by an Angel episode about a sad little girl with supernatural helpers.

Although Eva's "companions," a woman and a 14-year-old girl, protect her during an air raid and steer her away from a marriage that would have torn her from her father and aunt, they do not have magical powers. Their purpose seems to be one of continuity and reassurance; they are "emissaries" from her mother's world.

Livesey organizes Eva's biography into four sections, beginning with "Ballintyre," an account of her childhood, "Glasgow," her coming of age, and "My Mother's Valley," a return to the hamlet where her mother lived and where she herself becomes a mother. The fourth and final section, however, is a fierce departure from the others and the source, I think, of the novel's power.

Titled "You" and addressed to Eva's daughter, the passage takes the reader to a startling, tragic place, that cannot be described without giving too much away. For all its supernatural characters, Eva Moves the Furniture is not a fairy tale that builds to happily ever after. It, like life, is bittersweet; but not, blessedly, without hope.

M. G. Lord wrote Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. Formerly a columnist and syndicated political cartoonist, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. She is working on a history of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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