The Road from Belhaven: A Novel

  • By Margot Livesey
  • Knopf
  • 272 pp.

This absorbing tale is both steeped in mystery and grounded in the everyday.

The Road from Belhaven: A Novel

Margot Livesey’s The Road from Belhaven is part coming-of-age saga and part love story, with a dash of the supernatural thrown in. Some authors might find such a balance hard to maintain, but not this one. Livesey’s mastery of intricate detail, relatable characters, and strong central tension makes her new novel a satisfying read.

The story centers on a young Scottish woman, Lizzie Craig, and her second sight. Growing up on Belhaven Farm with her grandparents, Lizzie becomes used to what she calls her “pictures”: glimpses of what’s to come but not enough information to influence it.

When Lizzie’s older sister, Kate, who has been living with their other grandparents, moves to Belhaven, she is the first to give credence to Lizzie’s visions. Lizzie tells Kate about seeing Acorn, the farm’s mare, standing in a field with her head hung low, legs stiff, and mouth frothing. When the scene comes to pass — Acorn contracts lockjaw — Kate comforts the horse as it dies:

“She lay back on the blanket, and, after stroking Acorn, Lizzie did too. The darkness sorted itself into various shades, the blackest being the trees edging the field, the next-blackest directly overhead. Small, lacy clouds drifted between the dark centre of the sky and the dark trees.”

As the girls grow, Lizzie’s pictures take a back seat to concerns about her own future. It is assumed Kate, as the elder sister, will inherit the farm, especially after she marries Callum, her childhood sweetheart, who works the fields alongside the family. Lizzie begins to wonder what lies ahead for her, if not the daily rhythm of Belhaven.

When a seasonal worker brings his friend Louis from Glasgow to work the harvest, Louis and Lizzie strike up a friendship, with aspirations for more. After a correspondence, Lizzie moves to Glasgow to be with Louis, exploring a new city — and new feelings — with him:

“Afterwards, walking home, she thought, Why did no one tell me I could feel this way?... she studied the women she passed, wondering if they too knew this feeling that all the adults in her life, except Kate, had kept so carefully hidden.”

Soon, however, Lizzie learns the consequences of acting on these feelings are more long-lasting than she’d realized. When she becomes pregnant, she assumes Louis will be happy and propose marriage. Instead, he puts her off, insisting he must concentrate on his work.

After giving birth at Belhaven, Lizzie runs back to Glasgow, overwhelmed and afraid of losing Louis. She leaves her new daughter, Barbara, with her grandmother Flora, but Flora, too old to care for an infant, gives the baby to a local woman, Miss Urquhart, to raise.  

Lizzie is distraught to learn this but feels powerless to take her child back with no way to raise her alone. As she muddles through her days in Glasgow, she is suddenly confronted by another of her pictures, this one terrifying:

“…she recognized Miss Urquhart’s house. In one of the downstairs windows a lamp shone, but there was no sign of whoever had lit it. As she watched, a wisp of smoke escaped the window…More wisps, a cloud. Still the front door stayed shut. Still no one shouted ‘Help!’ or ‘Fire!’ Flames flickered at one downstairs window, then another. A pane of glass exploded, fragments flying into the garden. The flames leapt higher.”

As The Road from Belhaven accelerates toward its climax, Lizzie must race to save her daughter even as those around her refuse to believe in the danger she’s certain is coming. Livesey has crafted in this quietly splendid novel a portrait of a young woman whose life is buffeted both by external factors and her own internal circumstances. Readers won’t learn what awaits her until the very last page.

Mariko Hewer is a freelance editor and writer. She is passionate about good books, good food, and good company. Find her occasional insights at @hapahaiku.

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