Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Crooked Heart of Mercy

I've had some really great, feel good reads as of late so of course it's time for the pendulum to swing hard and fast the other direction, right?

The Crooked Heart of Mercy - Billie Livingston

From acclaimed Canadian novelist Billie Livingston comes this powerful U.S. debut that unfolds over a riveting dual narrative—an unforgettable story of ordinary lives rocked by hardship and scandal that follows in the tradition of Jennifer Haigh, A. Manette Ansay, and Jennifer Egan.

Ben wakes up in a hospital with a hole in his head he can't explain. What he can remember he’d rather forget. Like how he’d spend nights as a limo driver for the wealthy and debauched….how he and his wife, Maggie, drifted apart in the wake of an unspeakable tragedy…how his little brother, Cola, got in over his head with loan sharks circling.

Maggie is alone. Again. With bills to pay and Ben in a psych ward, she must return to work. But who would hire her in the state she’s in? And just as Maggie turns to her brother, Francis, the Internet explodes with video of his latest escapade. The headline? Drunk Priest Propositions Cops.

Francis is an unlikely priest with a drinking problem and little interest in celibacy. A third DUI, a looming court date.…When Maggie takes him in, he knows he may be down to his last chance. And his best shot at healing might lie in helping Maggie and Ben reconnect—against all odds.

Simmering with dark humor and piercing insights, The Crooked Heart of Mercy is a startling reminder that redemption can be found in the most unlikely of places.


I can't remember a book in recent history or off the top of my head where I hated every single character from the first couple of pages. I hated them all and at no part in the book did that ever turn for me and I'm not sure if I should be disappointed in that or if I should applaud the author because she went with something and she really committed to it until the very end.

I think why I hated the characters so much was because they are absolutely everything I am not as a parent. These are the people I would give zero sympathy to in real life and maybe that's because I'm more of a "buck up and deal" kind of person. When things are hard for me, I don't look for ways to "escape" and I really do, it's a prejudice of mine I will freely admit, I look down on the parents who just can't cope and resort to drinking or doing drugs as a way to unwind. I'm not even going to apologize for not being sorry, that's how not sorry I am. So when we start the book, Ben is basically in a mental institution of sorts after an "incident" that nobody thought he would survive. Maggie is trying to pay the bills on her own now since she clearly can't count on Ben. Her brother Francis ends up coming to stay with her after his own run in with the law and being in the beginning of a pretty big scandal. We find out that all of this happens immediately following the death of Ben and Maggie's son, who while they were busy getting high off of Xanax, falls out of their apartment window to his death. Clearly struggling with guilt, AS THEY SHOULD, they both spiral in different directions out of control, but don't worry, Francis, a clear alcoholic, is determined to save them both in the hopes he can save himself.

I really struggled to finish this book because I was disgusted at the very start of it and I wasn't convinced that any of the characters could be redeemed. Ultimately, they kind of are and their lives feel like they've come to a conclusion of sorts, or maybe it's just the starting point for take two on their relationship and life moving forward. So in that regard, I liked it.

The book has some dark humor to it, which never having read anything by this author, I wasn't aware this is part of her writing style. I'm not sure if the humor really fits because although dark, the story line in this book feels so heavy it almost feels out of place to make light of anything. I have to give this book 3 out of 5 stars. It wasn't amazing, it's probably one I won't think to recommend to anyone off the top of my head, but it wasn't terrible either and I think the author's writing is what really saved it for me.

You can find The Crooked Heart of Mercy on Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble. You may also want to check out Billie Livingston's website since she does have other books, though this is her U.S. debut. She is also on Twitter where you can keep up to date on future books!

2 comments:

trish said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts as part of the tour.

Rubin Cory said...

I read Crooked Heart of Mercy in Canada where it came out first. I give it 5 stars and then some!
Partly because my degrees were in English and the Humanities, I'm interested in the cognitive content of human emotion. I'm guessing Sara's dislike came from a young parent's innate fear that they may not be doing the absolute best for their child.There's a lot of pressure these days, for sure!
Disgust at the behaviour of others, particularly fictional characters, needs examination. It can be an excuse to shut off any compassion for them lest we be contaminated by their flaws.Or it can be an opportunity to remember not to beat ourselves up when we make our own, usually mundane, relatively inconsequential mistakes.
This novel is about flawed human beings, like we all are. Ordinary people who through a moment of inattention (which can happen without taking a drink or ingesting a drug)-- are thrown into an extreme situation. Some people consider the characters in Joyce Carol Oates' fiction grotesque. Oates, one of the great American authors, maintains that they are ordinary people in extreme situations. Livingston's writing is sometimes compared to Oates' with good reason.
She strives for meaning and understanding and in Crooked Heart,approaches the Christian meaning of mercy. This mercy is not lenience at some wrong, it is a soothing compassion for all flawed humans rather than a release from real consequences. It is what we all seek without knowing it. Some seek solace in a bottle or capsule, others in fleeting sexual encounters-- sure it can be destructive behaviour but anyone who has ever felt less than perfect, or tasted the broken glass fringe of depression has at least a passing acquaintance for that thirst for... something larger, perhaps even more "oceanic" than oneself.
The writing in Crooked Heart is masterful, and if one has lived as long as I have, a child of the 60s, one has had a lifetime of knowing flawed individuals and loving them just the same. Of making a few poor choices, picking yourself up and soldiering on--the alternative is unacceptable. And therein lies the redemption the characters are hoping for at the end of the novel. They turn their very human faces toward the light of mercy like a bunch of sunflowers following the trajectory of the sun.
The light of mercy shines in the darkness. Hold that thought!