Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston

None of us is perfect. We all carry burdens. But Herodotus said "But this I know: if all mankind were to take their troubles to market with the idea of exchanging them, anyone seeing what his neighbor's troubles were like would be glad to go home with his own." For most of us, that is probably true but not for all, I suspect. And I'd guess that the main characters in Billie Livingston's compelling new novel, The Crooked Heart of Mercy, would definitely choose different troubles, ones that didn't weigh on their hearts forever and so heavily.

Ben is in a psych ward. He has a head wound that he has no memory of receiving and he's deep in a dissociative state. He's psychologically numb and wants to stay that way. Maggie is trying to come back to life, at least enough to get a job and pay her rent. She's a house cleaner and takes care of senior citizens but in her first interview in a long time, she breaks down and flees the kindly and strange children's author who wants to hire her. Ben and Maggie are married but separated and it is clear that both of them are deeply broken. Narrating the story in alternating chapters, each of them tells of their unhappy and difficult pasts, the wrong choices they made to cope, and the devastating tragedy that has all but annihilated them individually and together. Just as Maggie seems to be starting to find a way to survive her grief, accepting a job with the elderly Lucy, her brother Francis, a priest, is embroiled in a scandal. Francis is gay and alcoholic and he fights against his desire for sex and liquor every day, losing more days than not. But he continues searching for God's grace despite his inability to honor his religious vows. Taken in by Maggie, he thinks he might find atonement in saving his sister and brother-in-law and their marriage.

This is a tough read; let me be up front about that. Before he landed in the psych ward, Ben drove a limo full of drunk and high people around every night. Maggie accepted prescription drugs as gifts or payment from her elderly clients. And the two of them used these drugs to escape from those things in life that were hard for them. Maggie lost her parents when she was young, living with her older brother Francis who, while he loved his sister, was too young and immature to be a parent to her. Ben's mother walked out on his father and her children and his father was an abusive addict, leaving Ben to care for his younger brother Cola, something he still tries to do even it does nothing but frustrate and annoy him. Clearly these are two people who have struggled for a long time but they found a measure of happiness and hope with each other for a brief period before terrible catastrophe shattered them. As characters they are imperfect, as are we all. They prove that grieving isn't pretty; it is desperate and painful. The first person narration allows the reader to see just how empty and despairing that Ben is and how devastated and crippled Maggie is and it offers an uncomfortable chance to climb into their skins, make the same terrible decisions they do, feel the stress and frustration their families cause them, and to experience the paralyzing guilt and heavy responsibility that their actions caused. The book is both powerful and draining as it looks at these issues and those of faith, family, the magnitude of loss, and what hope means. There is no easy redemption here, no promise of happiness, but there is putting one foot in front of the other and the acknowledgment that holding a hand as you move forward into the unknown gives you something to trust and rely on even if it can't ever remove the past.

For more information about Billie Livingston, take a look at her website or follow her on Twitter. Check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to the publisher and Trish from TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

  1. "They prove that grieving isn't pretty; it is desperate and painful." That is so well put. My heart aches for those who grieve a child.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts as part of the tour.


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