For some reason I am always surprised by role of sadness in Margot Livesey’s novels. This has much to do with her excellent character construction. She brings the reader into the minds of her protagonist, shedding light on their doubts and insecurities. The people she introduces become intimately known, making their tribulations all the more affecting. Having read The House on Fortune Street, I should, perhaps, have been prepared for the sorrows of The Missing World, a novel whose premise is fairly dark.
Hazel is crossing the street when she is hit by a car. Though she is not immediately affected, an hour or so later she winds up in the hospital in a coma. On the phone with her ex-boyfriend, Jonathan, at the time of her collapse after the accident, he is the one to retrieve her from her apartment and deliver her to the emergency room despite their recent history of animosity. Hazel awakes with no memory of the last three years, conveniently providing Jonathan with an opportunity to recreate the life they had together before things began to disintegrate.
Parallel to Hazel’s disaster, Livesey introduces the reader to Freddie. Freddie is an American who has taken up residence in London, currently supporting himself by repairing the roofs of the British. It quickly becomes clear that Freddie is unlike many other roofers. Years before, on the verge of graduating from Stanford, he abruptly dropped out and left the country. He has survived by picking up odd jobs across Europe, trying to escape something long unnamed. Freddie’s work takes him to Jonathan’s house, where he is struck by Hazel’s beauty and the fragility of her condition. He senses she needs to be helped and becomes tangled in Jonathan’s complex evasion of the past.
Finally there is Charlotte. She is equally as lost as Freddie, but her denial of her destitution intensifies her situation. Charlotte is a failed actress; she is behind on her rent, delusional about the scope of her charms, and prone to inviting herself where she is unwanted. Having exhausted every possible source of support, Charlotte winds up living with her disapproving sister Bernice, who has been hired as a nurse for Hazel.
Slowly and precisely all the characters that Livesey initially tracks individually manage to collide. Sexual attraction and indiscretion muddy the intents of the protagonists and the atmosphere of the story accrues elements of danger and the perverse. Despite the contrivance of placing all these characters within the same boundaries of exchange, Livesey does not let the plot devolve into a series of predictabilities. While rescue and renewal are achieved to some degree, little is resolved.
The melancholy of these characters’ lives is more tangible in some instances than others. Charlotte’s life pulsates with destitution that she manages to diffuse with alcohol and a falsified self-importance. Heroism edges Freddie’s persona, but it emerges that little of what he does satisfies his own needs, leaving him incomplete. Hazel is the one to be most pitied it seems. She, however, is the one into whose head very little entry is made. I felt sympathetic toward her, but never felt I knew what made her tick as I did with some others.
Suspense runs at a well-controlled rate throughout this enjoyable novel. The characters are etched with persuasive precision and their plights are convincing. The conclusion of the story contains premonitions of what might follow. The men and women of Livesey’s work pulsate with so much life that it is unfathomable to imagine their lives stop once there are no more pages.