Spirits of the North

Sheep in a road in Scotland

Come to Scotland

There is a woman sitting in a coffee shop, apparently in her mid-20s, drinking a very large latte with vanilla flavoring. Not that it’s relevant to our purposes here, but she also happens to be a student in food science, with a particular interest in the role of bacteria to make cheese. More to our purpose is the fact that she is reading the novel Eva Moves the Furniture, by Margot Livesey. The young woman is very close to the end of the novel as she sips her coffee and reads.

The cafe where the woman is reading is in an old house where every room on the ground floor has been converted into seating, aside, of course, from the kitchen and the counter that is lined with pastries. There are chairs at small tables, a few comfortable stuffed chairs, two couches in different rooms, paintings and odd plaster figures on the walls, and music by a female ballad singer coming from the speakers in the ceiling.

In a different room, on the old yellow couch, sits a bearded man apparently in his 40s. By coincidence he is also reading Eva Moves the Furniture, except he has only read 17 pages. Since we said something about the young woman, we may as well say that the man is a building inspector for the city, but in his real life he plays bagpipes because his grandfather was Scottish. The man is reading this novel because someone told him that it takes place in Scotland.

Eva Moves the Furniture is set in Scotland before, during, and shortly after World War II, partly in a couple of small villages and partly in Glasgow. The man with the Scottish grandfather will like the place references, though the places mostly remain background to the story. The young woman, well ahead of where he is reading, is finding herself surprised by the ending, which adds additional drama to what she expected.

Good or bad, a little extra drama at the end of a book is a common technique for many writers. One of the recent books I wrote about here, The Hummingbird’s Daughter, created a very dramatic scene to end the book, and I currently contemplate how to do something similar for the book I’m writing. (Hmm, is it somehow significant that literally as I’m typing these words, a Scottish band, the Trashcan Sinatras, has come on the radio?)

Just like The Hummingbird’s Daughter, Eva Moves the Furniture follows the story of a woman from birth into young adulthood. Because Eva tells her own story, the author gained the benefit of immediacy, which is good for character development, but since the point of view is limited to what the character can know, the author must work with that boundary in telling the story. Both at the beginning and end of the book, however, the author used some imagination to push against that restriction.

The use of first-person has especially pleased the young woman in the cafe, and she has enjoyed hearing the story told by Eva in her own voice, so that the reader gets a close feeling for Eva and her view of the world, with her hopes and fears. What the woman reading in the cafe does not like, however, is feeling at the end that Eva seems distant from her husband, as if he becomes a kind of background character. Perhaps it’s a flaw in the book, but perhaps not a major flaw if the telling of the story until that point has been captivating.

The author has also chosen another literary device that the young woman found entertaining, though it meant less to her than it is going to mean to the man on the couch (once he reads far enough to get to it). This book has ghosts. They accompany Eva throughout her life, and they have an impact on her life. The middle-aged man can relate to ghosts more than a young person can, and he will especially like the fact that the author knew enough to do more with the ghosts than simply have them appear.

Neither of these readers gives much thought to the style of writing, which is generally rather straightforward in relating the story, without any strong tendency to linguistic sparklers or cannon blasts of metaphor. Neither does the writing style try to experiment, as the story itself is expected to carry the book. The future food

Scottish cheese and drinks

No, really, come to Scotland

scientist finishes the book, takes a final sip of her coffee, then stands to go home, knowing she needs to study. On the way out, she is very surprised to see a man reading the very same book she is holding.

“Oh!” she says, “I just finished that book in the other room! Do you like it?”

“So far,” he replies, looking up. “I just started it.”

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