The Boy in the Field: A Novel

  • By Margot Livesey
  • Harper
  • 272 pp.

Grace and decency suffuse this quiet mystery, offering balm to the battered reader.

It’s funny how external factors influence what readers are in the mood for. Especially when times are fraught and uncertain, we tend toward stories that offer a sense of warmth and comfort. In the hellscape that is 2020, Margot Livesey delivers such balm.

Her ninth novel, The Boy in the Field, is a quiet, beautifully rendered mystery peopled with kind, decent characters who are sincerely doing their best for those around them. The warmth it offers is reinforced by its pastoral English sensibilities — shown here as continuing in the modern day — which immediately make Americans nostalgic.

As in a Greek drama, the violence, such as it is, takes place offstage; it is the characters’ reaction to the violence and its effect upon them that propels the narrative. I was thoroughly captivated, and the story pulled me in and drew me effortlessly along, starting from the very beginning:

“Here is what happened one Monday in the month of September, in the last year of the last century. Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang were on their way home from school.”

Their father has neglected to pick them up after class in Oxford; on the walk home to Oxfordshire, Zoe spots something out of the ordinary, and they all go to investigate, whereupon they discover the titular boy, wounded and apparently unconscious.

With economy built of intriguing details, Livesey uses chapter one to set up the action, introduce many of the characters, and give us a solid sense of who these three closely knit siblings are. From there, the chapters alternate among the points of view of each of them as the effects of their discovery play out.

Matthew, the responsible, studious eldest, is drawn to investigate the mystery of what happened to the boy — actually, a young man named Karel — struggling to untangle cause from effect, premeditation from spontaneity, and, perhaps, evil from simple human frailty.

Zoe, who turns 16 during the course of the story, is headstrong, opinionated, and a worry to her parents, Hal, a blacksmith, and Betsy, a solicitor, that she is too eager to get out into the world, too confident that she is equal to any given situation:

“She remembered her mother saying, ‘You have the right to change your mind. Right up until the last moment. Beyond. Don’t let embarrassment, or fear, stop you if you want to say no.’ But I want to say yes, she thought. That was the conundrum: How to say yes.”

Finally, adopted son Duncan, almost 14, is young for his age — he has to ask what “raped” means — but has a preternatural sensitivity to the world around him and takes in every detail. Already a talented artist, he is seized by color and form and thinks visually, which causes him problems in school. “‘I’m following,’ he had explained to Matthew, ‘but then the teacher says electrons orbit each other, and suddenly I’m picturing them instead of listening.’”

For Duncan, the discovery of Karel opens in him the desire to find his birth mother. He begins to dream of her, hidden in a beautiful room somewhere in their house, and to sleepwalk in his search for her.

Friends who are adopted have heightened my sensitivity to the use of adoption as a plot device or character definition, since it is so often gratuitous. Here, though, I feel that Livesey does right by her characters. She offers no discussion of what led Hal and Betsy to bring 3-day-old Duncan home, instead focusing on the issues of family and belonging and of understanding who you are almost entirely from Duncan’s perspective. He has agency over his story.

And make no mistake: Though the novel shifts through the points of view of each sibling, this is Duncan’s story. His is the most complex and compelling journey, and his character is where our emotions are firmly invested. Duncan understands that even suggesting that he wants to find his “first mother” causes his family anguish, but also that it is his right to seek answers for himself:

“‘I’d like to know what I got from her,’ he said, ‘and I’d like her to know that she made a good choice’…He could not see his mother’s face as she sat beside him, but he could feel little darts of emotion, flying in all directions.”

Duncan’s Turkish ancestry also marks him as physically distinct from the Oxfordshire paleness of his family. “He was so used to the hastily concealed double take most people did on meeting him — his dark skin, his dark eyes — that he barely noticed it.” But Duncan notices everything.

There are a few jarring spots of tone-deafness here, none more so than a passing observation of a character’s suicide, along with the assessment that the character was “no longer afraid.” The reductionism of those few sentences is breathtaking in an otherwise sensitive story.

Certainly, some readers will find their patience tried by a novel in which virtually all the characters are open-hearted and generous, even as they keep secrets and do some perilously hurtful things.

Such readers’ breaking point may be the introduction of Lily, the dog who chooses Duncan and serves as a wise counselor to all who pass her character test. Not me: I was bought in for the whole journey.

I realize that the daily pummeling of events over the last eight months softened me up for a book like this, which invites the reader in and envelops her in a warm glow. Thanks, Margot Livesey. It was just what I needed.

Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny writes a bi-monthly column and reviews frequently for the Independent and serves on its board of directors. She also writes a bimonthly column for Late Last Night Books. Her short fiction has appeared in Gargoyle and Pen-in-Hand. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle. Previously, she served as chair of the Washington Writers Conference and as president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. Stop by Jenny’s website for a collection of her reviews and columns, and follow her on Twitter at @jbyacovissi.

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