A man and a woman meet, fall in love, and then are separated. This might be the plot of Margot Livesey’s latest novel, Banishing Verona. The book moves across familiar terrain but belies its own simplicity. Because it’s also possible to say that the story is about a man who is incapable of lying who meets a woman who tells nothing but lies. That their love consists of a single night spent together in a stranger’s house. And that the circumstances by which they’re separated are only ostensibly beyond their control. But these scenarios don’t do justice to Livesey’s true achievement, the creation of characters who quicken a story about the nature of love into a story about the mutability of truth.
The man who cannot lie is 29-year-old Zeke. Diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, he has a compromised ability to practice and interpret the nuances of human communication. He is, as he says of himself, "no good at metaphors and subtexts." He does not trust his own perceptions, the version of truth revealed to him.
The woman who is lying is Verona. Thirty-seven years old, seven months pregnant and single, she has always considered herself fearless and forthright. Her bravery is tested when two strange men break into her London flat and demand to know the whereabouts of her ne’er-do-well brother, Henry. Verona, terrified and seeking refuge, turns up on the doorstep of the London house Zeke is painting, telling him she’s the absent owners’ niece.
The morning after they’ve made love, Verona flees. Although her brief collision with Zeke has affected her more deeply than she imagined, she remains in flight. Believing she can rescue Henry, she follows him first to Boston, then to New York, and then back to London. Believing he has fallen in love, Zeke would follow Verona, but he doesn’t know her name. After an awkward search, he finds, through a mutual acquaintance, a trail of messages Verona has left for him, insubstantial as breadcrumbs, and pursues her across the Atlantic.
Add to the elements of romance and suspense a family story, a story about the pain and pull of obligation. Zeke struggles against his parents’ stifling expectation that he’ll take over the family greengrocer business after his father’s heart attack and his mother’s confession that she has a lover and plans to leave. Verona is caught in a pattern of protecting and defending the amoral Henry, campaigning for his reform, even though he does not deserve her efforts and they will not succeed.
Livesey’s prose clarifies her protagonists’ moments of revelation. Listening to his mother’s demands, Zeke feels "as if he were in the presence of a championship bricklayer; the wall was rising around him with astonishing speed." When Verona realizes Henry’s thorough corruption and the extent of his betrayal, she imagines him shrugging off her disappointment and continuing on his destructive path "for no better reason than a cat kills birds or a hedgehog eats eggs." Zeke’s silly and vain mother, his frightened querulous father, the over-earnest girlfriend Henry uses and then throws over, all are dynamic characters, and Livesey is never less than graciously humane with them.
Secreted in the story, under a pillow in the bed that Zeke and Verona shared, there’s a secondary narrative, the journal Verona’s grandfather, a veteran of the trenches of World War I, has left to her. It’s the story of an old man’s encounters with truth, how often he evaded and withheld it, how it was hidden from him and how he allowed himself to be diverted from it. It’s also the story of his lies, the ones he told to his comrades and himself, the ones told to him by his country, his commanding officers, his wife, his grandson Henry.
The journal comes to Zeke and Verona too late to help them. It might have revealed Verona’s identity to Zeke, or Henry’s character defects to Verona and saved her from the exhausting and disillusioning journey she makes on his behalf, but it does neither. They’re too busy flying around and leaving messages on cell phones and answering machines to bother with this relic. Filled with cramped handwriting, the diary holds the truth, but it’s beside the point. It’s like a secondary road, an old turnpike that has been abandoned for the bright glare of a superhighway.
Margot Livesey reads Friday November 12 at 7 p.m. at the Harvard Book Store, 1256 Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square; call (617) 661-1515. On Wednesday December 1 at 7:30 p.m., she’s at Newtonville Books, 296 Walnut Street in Newton; call (617-244-6619). And on Thursday December 2 at 7 p.m., she reads at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street in Coolidge Corner; call (617) 566-6660.
Issue Date: October 29 - November 4, 2004
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