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What I'm Reading
Book discussions with a focus on the writer's craft

The Road from Belhaven


 It's hard to put down Margot Livesey's riveting new novel, The Road from Belhaven, because the troubles of the protagonist, Lizzie Craig, which are the enduring troubles of young women, are complicated by a psychic ability she has inherited from her deceased mother. These complications turn what might otherwise have been a straight-forward coming-of-age story into a gripping narrative of loss, suffering, and redemption.


Raised by her grandparents on a struggling sheep farm called Belhaven, Lizzie's childhood is filled with animals, including a tame bird named Alice that she trains to follow her.  As she collects eggs, clears a pasture of sharp things that could injure their animals, and helps her grandparents with the harvest, the reader is embedded in the details of her daily life through a close third person perspective that imbues this rural world with a girl's excitement.


The pictures from the future come to Lizzie only occasionally, but when they do, they interrupt her daily tasks with a jarring but insistent image of something that is immediately distressing and requires action of some kind.  She keeps the pictures secret from her grandparents, who would scoff at the idea of them, but second sight becomes central to who Lizzie is, and will become central to the developing story. In these beautiful first lines, which do so much to set up the sensory aliveness of Lizzie's childhood, the reader learns she has a secret.


"The summer she was ten she learned not to speak of it. She told the hens, she told the cows, she told the pond at the bottom of the field and the ducks who swam there and her pet jackdaw, Alice, but she did not tell her grandparents, Rab and Flora, or Hugh, the farm boy, or Nellie, who had helped in the house when she, Lizzie, was learning to walk and whom they still saw every week at the kirk" (3). 


The pleasing rhythm of a short declarative sentence followed by a long sentence that is a string of dependent clauses full of first names, gives me not only the rough circumference of the setting, but a sense of Lizzie's devotion to the animals, people, and places of this pastoral homestead.


When she's eleven, her older sister, Kate, comes to live at Belhaven. Raised in a distant town by their other grandparents, Kate brings to Lizzie's narrow and isolated life an awareness of other places, other ways of being, and when she introduces Callum, her fiancé, into the tight family unit at Belhaven, the door is opened to matters of romance.

The Road from Belhaven is set in Scotland at the end of the nineteenth century and though the present is richly evoked, it is the future that is most menacing.  For women in the days before birth control, before knowledge about female anatomy and its cycles of fertility was available, sex was dangerous. As Kate blithely steps into pregnancy and marriage, she is the unwitting guide for her impressionable, younger sister who sees everything, including, most importantly, how Kate sneaks out of the house at night to be with Callum.


The values Flora instilled in her granddaughter are no match for the imperatives of adolescence, especially as illustrated by Kate.  When Lizzie breaks a plate and hides the pieces, her grandmother finds them and says, "Anyone can break a plate, but a lie will always find you out. Promise me, Lizzie, you'll always tell the truth. She had promised and, save for the pictures and an occasional fib, kept her word. But Kate's feelings for Callum seemed to sweep away all other considerations" (63).


When Kate arrives at Belhaven, she is burdened by adult experience, the death of the grandmother who raised her and the longing for a boy from whom she is separated. These losses give her the courage to take risks that Lizzie watches and learns from. Kate becomes Lizzie's guide so when Kate and Callum are married and the baby arrives before nine months are up, no one speaks a word.  The lesson? Sex will lead to marriage and marriage bestows virtue upon an impulsive woman.


"From the field where they'd lifted the potatoes last week came the cry of the curlews pecking the newly turned earth with their long, curved beaks. Watching them, Lizzie thought there were the things she understood—animals and crops and the weather and her grandparents—but running beneath them, beyond her understanding, was a dark river where a girl could drown; where brothers could hurt a sister; where Kate would risk anything for Callum" (65).


I love this paragraph.  The two sentences move deftly from the concrete—the curlews pecking the earth—to the abstract—risk and harm—to show her transition from girlhood to womanhood, and most importantly, how Lizzie's land-based upbringing is challenged by the chaos of new knowledge. She sees the unmarried girl who drowned herself in the river, hears the town's gossip about her behavior with a local boy; she learns about a girl growing up with older brothers who abuse her, and begins to connect these dark stories with her sister's determination to be with Callum no matter the consequences. But stories of fallen women are no match for Kate's example because Kate possesses an authority that outweighs all the tales of woe.  This is the power of a guide character. Kate's behavior creates a pattern for Lizzie to follow; her sister's example rules over the practicalities she's learned on the farm, instilling romance, a quality that outweighs the lessons of hardship Lizzie has learned. And because Kate arrived from the mysterious circumstances of another set of grandparents who raised her in a distant town, she has the allure of the unknown, the new, the foreign, qualities the down-to-earth Lizzie can't help but be attracted to.


By creating a guide character, Livesey sets up a classic tension: what is right for one person often is not right for the next. But it will take a whole book of lies before Lizzie finds where the truth is hiding.  The reader knows before Lizzie knows so when finally she understands…well, it's an emotional moment for all of us!
Livesey, Margot. The Road from Belhaven. New York: Knopf, 2024.