One of the great -- and sadly rare -- pleasures of reading fiction comes when we recognize our lives in the actions and decisions of fictional characters. Watching someone else wrestle with temptations that we know, yearning for the same desires that call to us, balancing motivations whose shape and limitations are part of our daily thinking creates an exceptionally intimate reading experience. We recognize a brethren consciousness, and the relief of that recognition is voluptuous.
Fiction is shapelier than our ramshackle lives, suggesting that there is a pattern to our actions, even if we can't always discern it. In this way, fiction provides a consolation, and the more we identify with it, the greater the consolation.
Margot Livesey draws on both of these powerful attractions in her glorious new novel, "The House on Fortune Street." Longtime readers of Livesey's fiction will recognize her signature attributes: enticing, elusive characters; bright lives that come to reveal dark, even sinister mysteries; a ravishing prose style. "The House on Fortune Street" combines those traits with even greater breadth than in earlier books. Always concerned with characters' inner lives, and the separation between what we show the world and what we know about ourselves, Livesey creates characters in the act of creating themselves. The result is rich and frighteningly intimate, in the great precision and compassion of Livesey's vision.
The book begins with Sean, who lives in the house on Fortune Street in London with the owner, Abigail, and upstairs from Abigail's longtime friend Dara. A graduate student struggling to finish his dissertation on the poet Keats, Sean strains to marry the profound romanticism of his subject with 21st-century irony -- next to the door of his office hangs a copy of Keats' death mask at the height the famously short poet would have stood. Like Keats, who confessed himself "half in love with easeful Death," Sean finds himself preoccupied with mortality when he takes on a job writing a book for the Hemlock Society, the pro-euthanasia group, in order to make extra money.
In this graceful, odd, slightly comic way, Sean finds his interests aligned with --and informed by -- those of the great Romantic poet. Before the chapter is over, Sean confronts not only the death of love, Keats' first great subject, but also the death of one he loves, Keats' other great subject. Both a guide and an example, Keats inhabits the chapter like a spirit, alluring and cautionary.
A different spirit guides the next chapter, narrated by Dara's father, Cameron. A man of deeply conflicted and complex desires, he finds solace in the life and work of Charles Dodgson, known to readers as Lewis Carroll, who so loved young girls. Frightened by his own impulses, Cameron lives an increasingly fraught and secretive life until a misstep causes him to be severed from his family and those he loves, including young Dara. Only 10 years old at the time that her father leaves, she grows up feeling at least half an orphan, convinced that her life was blighted by its early sorrow. Terribly, she sees her life mirrored in Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë's passionate tale of loneliness, orphanhood, and thwarted desire.
Finally the novel turns to Abigail, the vivid, dashing creature who is a part of all of these lives. A child of hardship, she has few joyful memories of her youth, but she cherishes the memory of looking for pottery shards with her beloved grandfather. While they dug, her grandfather talked about Charles Dickens, who might have dug on that very marsh, and remembered it when he wrote the eerie marsh scene in "Great Expectations." The image is extraordinarily rewarding, like so much in this book: the elder and child seeking for remains of the past, using literature as a guide.
"The House on Fortune Street" is stunningly ambitious. In its exploration of these lives, intricately entangled and richly imagined, in its deep and wise comprehension of human possibility, and in the gorgeousness of its vision, it is not just a superb book and not just a transporting one. It is luminous.