Top Ten contributor Margot Livesey is receiving warm reviews for her ninth novel, The Boy in the Field. The novel opens on a September afternoon in 1999 when three teenage siblings, Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang discover a boy lying in a field, bloody and unconscious. Thanks to their intervention, the boy’s life is saved.
As Laura Bufferd observes in BookPage, “From her earliest work, Livesey has displayed an interest in how individuals cope with the physical and psychic space left by missing family members.”
The Boy in the Field depicts how the lives of the three siblings are irrevocably changed by this encounter.
Matthew, the oldest, becomes obsessed with tracking down the assailant, secretly searching the local town with the victim’s brother. Zoe wanders the streets of Oxford, looking at men, and one of them, a visiting American graduate student, looks back. Duncan, the youngest, who has seldom thought about being adopted, suddenly decides he wants to find his birth mother. Overshadowing all three is the awareness that something is amiss in their parents’ marriage. Over the course of the autumn, as each of the siblings confronts the complications and contradictions of their approaching adulthood, they find themselves at once drawn together and driven apart.
In her New York Times review, Jenny Rosenstrach writes, “Livesey’s writing is quiet, observant and beautifully efficient — there’s not an extra word or scene in the entire book — and yet simultaneously so cinematic, you can hear the orchestral soundtrack as you tear through the pages."
Margot Livesey’s Top Ten List
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847).
2. Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932).
3. Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (1928).
4. The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956). (See below).
5. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972).
6. Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951).
7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955).
8. A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert (1877).
9. The stories of Mavis Gallant
10. The stories of William Trevor
Appreciation of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows by Margot Livesey
I don’t know why I waited so long to read The Fountain Overflows. There was a copy in the library of my Scottish school; after all, the novel sold 40,000 copies in 1956, the year it was published. Perhaps it was even in my father’s library, squeezed between, say, Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, two novels I adored. The book was around but the truth is I didn’t want to read it, in part because I associated it with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West’s massive tome about pre–World War II Yugoslavia, which I didn’t want to read even more. I finally succumbed only a few years ago at the urging of a dear friend.
Some books, much lauded on publication, rapidly gather dust, but luckily for me The Fountain Overflows remains as lustrous and passionate as when West penned the last page. The novel tells the story of the Aubrey family living in Edwardian London. Mr. Aubrey is a charismatic and unreliable journalist; Mrs. Aubrey, a former pianist, is an awkward woman of immense moral intelligence. Around these two orbit the Aubrey children: the musical Mary and Rose, the awful Cordelia who wants to be musical, and the beloved Richard Quinn. The story is told by Rose.
One scene captures for me West’s genius. A man comes to complain to Mrs. Aubrey about her husband having an affair with his wife. After she has done her best to cheer him up, Mrs. Aubrey takes refuge in Madame Bovary and, by the time her husband arrives home, is absorbed in the novel. Together they praise and criticize Flaubert. Only then does she recall what brought her to pick up the novel in the first place. “I am really very heartless,” she cried, rising to her feet. “But art is so much more real than life. Some art is much more real than some life, I mean.”
And this is exactly how I feel about The Fountain Overflows; it is more real, and more pleasurable, than most life.