Book Review — Learning by Heart (1986) by Margot Livesey

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

A few weeks ago in a review of Anne Enright’s short story collection The Portable Virgin I made this observation: “[Short story collections seem] like something a publisher dreamt up because it was the only way to monetise that facet of their asset’s talent. And while there may be exceptions to the rule, just generally [the collection] seems antithetical to the [short story] form.” Every review I write is cross-posted on my friend and editor Zoya Patel’s excellent feminist arts and literature journal Feminartsy, and when I sent the review containing that comment to her she responded, “there was a time I would have agreed with you, but that was before I read Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil, which told me that an author setting out specifically to create a collection of short stories that will be published together can create a real masterpiece in balance, tone, and thematic connections.”

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First of all, I consider myself incredibly lucky to count Zoya among my friends (and editors), and if you aren’t paying attention to Feminartsy yet, you should start doing so now. (This is obviously not relevant to you if you are reading the cross-posted version of this review on Feminartsy. I congratulate you for being here.)

Secondly, upon reflection, I think it’s truer to say there are two kinds of short story collection, rather than one with exceptions, and that the other kind of short story collection is the one described by Zoya with reference to Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke (which I have not read and which I very much intend to read). It is a short story collection which the author embarked upon as a deliberate, complete undertaking in its own right, which succeeds as much for the sum of its parts as for the parts themselves. Having not read many short story collections myself, it could turn out to be the case that this kind of collection is in the majority, but in my own reading I would count only two such titles in that class: The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Learning by Heart by Margot Livesey.

At a line-by-line level, the stories in Learning by Heart do not appear to be ripe with subtext. Livesey’s style is linear and unadorned – she begins a story with a clear main character and follows them a while, unfolding their behaviour chronologically with a hand that never wavers or leaps. I don’t mean to say that Livesey is not a brilliant writer; to give you an idea of her strengths, I very often dog-ear my books to mark pages on which I find a phrase or scene that captivates me, and I didn’t dog-ear a single page of this book. Rather than a fixation with moments, Livesey’s stories provoked in me, again and again, a sense of complex, subtle wholeness, reminiscent of … well, of life. This might seem boring or old-fashioned to some readers, but to me it felt masterful, reminiscent of short stories by Elizabeth Taylor.

In Umbrellas, the presence and absence of a single umbrella sows a subtle, unspoken distrust between friends. In A Small Price, a woman explores her sexual relationship with a man who keeps her at arm’s length emotionally yet plies her with money. In Peter and the Asteroids, a man named Peter, who never arrives, stokes odd tensions in a group of London exes and friends with the news that he is coming back. In A Story to be Illustrated by Max Ernst, a man’s myopic devotion his male employer precludes him from accepting love of his own. And in the title story, two stories are told in tandem, the first from the perspective of a girl growing up in a small Scottish town riddled with classism, and the second, many years hence, from the perspective of her stepdaughter, as she reflects on the unpleasantness of the woman she knew and tries to make sense of it.

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There’s something totally remarkable about reaching the end of a short story collection and realising you do not have a favourite. There is something so plain and humane, yet crafted and conscious, in every one of these stories, that the sum of them is worth hours of discussion. You would, it seems to me, be discussing real people, and would find them just as obvious and ambiguous, depending on which aspect of them you addressed. Sure, these folks are very white and very Western (in a Scottish-English, late twentieth century sort of way), but Livesey really does see and understand them in a way that transcends didacticism. It’s coming to the pointy end of 2015 and I have begun to think about highlights of my reading project – Learning by Heart is a late but definite inclusion.

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