The Crooked Heart of Mercy
William Morrow Paperbacks
In The Crooked Heart of Mercy, the sixth novel by award-winning Canadian novelist Billie Livingston, we meet Maggie and Ben, a once happy working-class couple whose world is torn asunder when their two-year-old son scrambles out their apartment window just as the couple has settled in for quiet evening together. If this isn’t bad enough, their date-night involves a bottle of wine and a prescription drug that was not prescribed to either Maggie or Ben.
If you’re wincing right now then that is precisely what Livingston had in mind. But just as the author takes you down to the unfathomable depths of grief, she will just as quickly whisk you back to hope and optimism, with plenty of gallows humor along the way. Livingston continually challenges her readers to look beyond their own prejudices and to suspend their judgment by showing the vulnerable, soft sides of her characters, who have made mistakes, but haven't we all?
After the tragedy, Maggie is no longer able to face Ben and moves out. Ben not only has to contend with the loss of his son and his wife, the only things he got right in life, but he also has to deal with an ailing father and a wayward younger brother. Unable to cope or sleep, Ben attempts to take his own life.
The story opens with Ben finding himself in a hospital room that is “as white as a scream.” In a dissociative state and unable to answer simple questions, Ben is confused as to who Ben is. In response to his psychiatrist’s question about how he ended up in the psychiatric ward with a bullet in his head, Ben does not answer aloud, but to himself, “Dr. Lambert wants to know about the hole. Ben’s black hole. If he stuck his finger in, surely Lambert could find the answer in there.”
He occasionally answers the question of the other characters in the story, but mostly he answers in a meandering interior monologue, airing his comic disdain for therapy, mental health professionals and privileged individuals, such as fellow patient Greg the attorney, who claims at a group session that he was selected by God and brought in with nails in his hands and feet.
While Ben has a hole in his head, Maggie looks on as claw-fisted diggers are excavating a hole on a building site. Maggie has just left Ben and is grieving the loss of her son. But money is needed, and she is on her way to an interview as a helper-cleaner to Lucy, an 82-year-old self-absorbed senior. One of Maggie’s duties is to accompany Lucy to the Church of Spiritualism to listen to a medium who speaks with the dead. This is a little more than Maggie can bear. As a lapsed Catholic, she claims she doesn’t go in for any “hocus pocus”, but she still listens closely just in case her son sends her a message.
If grieving weren’t enough, Maggie gets a call from the seminary about her gay brother Francis, a Catholic priest who has caused a scandal which involves his drunken rant at the county jail being captured on social media. Francis has to go and stay with his sister in her tiny apartment. In one of the book’s funnier moments, an exasperated Maggie confronts her brother about his choice to become a priest. As a bullied child, Francis confesses that he liked the safety of the church and that close-to-God feeling. He also reveals that he likes helping people and he enjoys being a priest, to which Maggie replies, “Why? Is it the robes? Getting all dressed up in the vestments? Is it like the ultimate drag show or what?”
While Francis lives with Maggie, he goes on a short-lived party-sex binge. Despite his weaknesses, Francis is very good with people. His gift of lending an ear and offering hope makes all the difference in this story.
The Crooked Heart of Mercy is suffused with a compassionate take on spiritualism, both conventional and pagan. But rest assured there is nothing preachy in this book. It serves as a reminder that the religion of our childhood, even after we’ve firmly closed the door on it for myriad reasons, is often where we turn, albeit in a more subdued form, when faced with tragedy, crisis and grief, even in spite of ourselves. But unlike the fairy tale depiction of redemption we’ve seen countless times in mainstream media, the reader sees through Ben that there will always be scars.
This is the most ambitious and complex of Livingston’s novels to date, and without a doubt her finest. Of all the books I have read in recent years, this one gnawed at me for months. I found that it poked holes in my belief system and raised so many new questions. Why did Livingston choose to have the couple take a prescription drug? Why did the plot revolve around such a horrific tragedy? Why did the author make Ben so resistant to seeking psychiatric help? And why did she have Francis go on a party-sex binge?
These are a few of the questions that I have asked Billie Livingston. Please drop by for my interview with her.