Full disclosure: I received a copy of this book from Penguin Random House of Canada in exchange for an honest review.
CanLit is a genre category that I know I need to read more of as a self-respecting Canadian and yet it’s something that I still struggle to actually do.
Enter: The Crooked Heart of Mercy by Billie Livingston.
Here’s a section of the description of the book from Goodreads:
The Crooked Heart of Mercy […] features an indelible trio of characters who could only come from the imagination of Billie Livingston. There’s Ben, whose world we enter on the first page: he’s a limo driver who, after he loses his son, finds himself locked up in a psych ward with a hole in his head he can’t explain. His wife, Maggie, the other narrator of the story, is locked up in her own grief, unable to reach out to her husband. Then there is Maggie’s brother, Francis, an unlikely priest with a drinking problem and only occasional interest in celibacy, whose latest fall from the wagon was caught on video and has gone viral as Drunk Priest Propositions Cop.
How they come together to heal each other’s many wounds is the magic of this novel, as is its intensity, its wit, its deep sense of the absurd, and the surprising grace at its core.
Normally I try and come up with my own description, but this one really does sum it up.
And yet, it doesn’t.
This is a tiny book – my copy was 256 pages. It’s difficult to complete a story and cram so much heart and feeling and devastation and love into such a small space and yet that’s exactly what Livingston does.
Maggie and Ben are dealing with the tragic loss of their son in very different ways. Maggie can’t bear to talk about it, she wants to move on with her life but she’s paralyzed by her grief. She leaves Ben, intent on removing every trace of her old life. Meanwhile Ben thinks often about the life that they had together, reliving the moments when the old Maggie and Ben were a family, with their son Frankie. He thinks of Maggie and the loss they’ve both suffered while he tries to keep going on with work and the care of an elderly father who was abusive in his youth.
Maggie’s life is further complicated by the arrival of her brother, Francis, a priest in the middle of his own crisis.
Livingston’s writing is poetic, fierce in its love. The Crooked Heart of Mercy feels like a meditation on life and loss, love and anger, grief and joy, of finding a way to put the pieces back together after everything has shattered.
Also, surprisingly for Canadian Literature, this one does have a sort of happy ending. It’s hopeful anyway.
I read this little book on a Sunday, surprised at how quickly I became invested in it. It read to me like a movie – the same way that Linden McIntyre’s Punishment did. If you loved the movie Away From Her (or the short story on which it was based), I’m confident that you will love The Crooked Heart of Mercy.