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Layered novel of deception will stay with readers

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The Deception of Livvy Higgs

By Donna Morrissey

Penguin Canada, 288 pages, $32

Secrets, lies and coverups on the Canadian East Coast -- from its opening pages, Newfoundland native Donna Morrissey's latest literary novel will pull you in with the force of a riptide.

Livvy Higgs is an 80-year-old woman living alone in present-day Halifax. Her family members are all dead. Her young neighbour Gen, a single mother and social work student, is her caregiver and only friend.

The stubborn, proud and independent Livvy has spent most of her adult life trying to forget about her troubled childhood, which was overshadowed by a mysterious secret involving her father and maternal grandmother.

"If there's one good thing age has taken from me, it's the burden of memories," Livvy muses to herself.

But when she is struck with a sudden illness, and trapped at home because of a snowstorm, she becomes overwhelmed by the memories of her ruthless, domineering father, sly, smarmy grandmother and angry, victimized mother.

For the first time in her life, Livvy begins to untangle the lies and deceptions her family created around her. As she begins to realize the far-reaching effects of the family secrets, she begins to make sense of her present life.

As Livvy drifts between past and present, she keeps coming in contact with Gen, who is hiding her own secrets. And then a sudden violent act will force both women to face up to each other and to the secrets they have been hiding for so long.

Canadian literature fans will draw many parallels between Deception and Manitoba icon Margaret Laurence's revered novel The Stone Angel, both of which tell the story of an old woman confronting her past in her final days.

Like Laurence's Hagar Shipley, Livvy is independent, strong-willed and stubborn. But Livvy is far more kind-hearted, and much easier for readers to like.

Morrissey made her debut as a novelist in 2005 with Kit's Law, which is also a family saga set in Atlantic Canada. She has since established a reputation as a writer with an eye on the dark side of human nature.

In The Deception of Livvy Higgs, her fourth novel, she moves seamlessly between Livvy's childhood and present life. Morrissey beautifully captures both the cadences of Livvy's childhood and adult voices. Livvy narrates the story in a thoughtful and even voice, although at times the reader will wonder if her perspective is entirely reliable.

Another lovely feature of the story is the relationship between Gen and Livvy. The two women are wonderful foils for each other and their encounters add greater depths to their characters.

"You're such a curiosity," Gen says to Livvy at one point. "So shy of people. Makes me feel special to be sitting here with you like this."

Morrissey is no stranger to heavy themes, and Deception explores dark avenues like lies, fraud, discrimination and cruelty. There are very few light moments to balance the weighty themes, and very little humour.

Morrissey also doesn't create much suspense as the novel progresses -- the journey towards finding out the women's secrets is almost leisurely, which makes the secrets seem unimportant at times.

In fact, the entire plot may seem simple at first glance, but as the novel progresses it continues to reveal layers and layers of psychological, social and emotional depth that will stay with readers even after they set down the novel.

Kathryne Cardwell is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 22, 2012 J9

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