Book Review: “The Road from Belhaven” — How Hope and Resilience Can Prevail

By Roberta Silman

Margot Livesey has given us an exhilarating historical novel filled with fascinating details of a different time in an isolated part of the world, all rendered in gorgeous prose.

The Road from Belhaven by Margot Livesey. Knopf, 259 pages, $29.

Margot Livesey and I have been friends for more than 30 years. And one of the pleasures of my life has been to watch her grow as a writer. This is her 11th work of fiction — and they have given readers untold pleasures over the last few decades. It is hard to single out a favorite, for they are all interesting and worthy, but Homework, Eva Moves the Furniture, Criminals, as well as Banishing Verona, The House on Fortune Street, and, most recently, The Boy in the Field, stick in my mind. And what I like as I look back on Livesey’s body of work is her willingness to explore different settings and characters and periods in her novels; she can never be accused of writing the same thing over and over.

Having said that, I must remind myself that in Livesey’s impressive body of work — as with most writers worth their salt — there are recurring themes and settings, often based on the writer’s life, such as: Where do we come from and to whom do we belong? A perfectly natural concern for someone born in Scotland whose mother died when she was a young child and who, after her father remarried, was brought up by beloved adopted parents “on the edge of the Scottish Highlands.” Thus, her Scottish identity informs her work, just as Warwickshire informs the work of George Eliot or Milledgeville, Georgia, informs the work of Flannery O’Connor.

In this new work Belhaven Farm is as much of a presence as Lizzie Craig, the protagonist whom we meet when she is 10 years old and living with her grandparents, Flora and Rab “in that part of Scotland called the Kingdom of Fife, surrounded on three sides by water: the Firth of Forth to the south, the North Sea to the east, the Tay estuary to the north.” We also know from the first sentence that Lizzie is blessed with what we call, for want of a more accurate term, second sight. It is something Livesey has written about before, in Eva Moves the Furniture, about her mother Eva McEwen, whose two ghostly companions seemed to move her through her life. In that early novel those visionary people were unreliable: sometimes forces for good, sometimes not. Lizzie, who is based on Eva’s grandmother, does not have phantom visitors, but she sees images, often pictures that will occur in the future, pictures that are sometimes harbingers of ordinary events, but also sometimes warnings of harm to come.

So in addition to a coming-of-age story set in Victorian times — Lizzie was born in 1882 — we have a story about an orphaned child who grows into adulthood as a secret clairvoyant, not quite sure if her envisioning those pictures is a gift or a curse. Which gives this lovely novel an edge, an engrossing tension between what is real and what is not. After Flora dismisses the fortuneteller at the fair with, “We all want to know what’s coming, but only God can know what’s coming. It’s the devil tempting us when we try to find out,” Lizzie becomes even more watchful about when or where to reveal her unusual skill. Which only complicates things even more.

But, even if you are as highly intelligent as Lizzie and come from bookish people who love you with all their hearts, how do you mature without the protection of parents, or even one parent, as so many Victorian children were forced to do? How do you maneuver in a world where an older, unknown sister suddenly appears at the farm when you are an adolescent? An older sister who will inherit the farm you thought would be yours? And how do you survive your teenage longings and needs without a parent to guide you away from the shoals of disaster, from falling pregnant? These are the obstacles that face Lizzie, and her wondrous rapport with the natural world, her talent for drawing, her highly developed powers of observation, and her secret gift of seeing the future can’t help her in overcoming them.

We watch as Lizzie succumbs to the affections of Louis, has her baby, and becomes wiser in the ways of the world. Instead of surrendering to the conventional way of dealing with an illegitimate child, Lizzie discovers she has more agency than she imagined. When she goes to Glasgow to follow the father of her little girl, still hoping he will marry her, she learns that she has choices; she also learns that there are nuances to the personalities of those she meets; that there is a lot more gray than she had thought when she was growing up in black-and-white Belhaven. So what, at first, seems an ordinary tale of maturing into adulthood at the end of the Victorian era becomes a journey filled with urgency and a growing self-awareness and even danger.

One of the most affecting aspects of this moving story is Lizzie’s discovery that her talent for drawing can become a way of earning a living. When she goes to the office where there might be a job she is sure she will not get, she is asked:

       Have you studied drawing?”

       “No, but people say I’m good at it.”

        Mr Simpson nodded. The girls in the room, he told her, were locomotive tracers; they were tracing the drawings of draughtsmen and architects, or sometimes copying photographs, onto transparent cloth. The completed drawings were colored to show the different materials and sent back to the factory or office. At a corner table, he handed her a sheet of paper clipped to a board and a photograph of a train engine.  “Make a drawing of this,” he said, “as like as possible.”

        She began to lightly mark the body of the engine, the chimney, the wheels, the pistons and valves. As she sketched in the details, carefully shading the chimney, she forgot that she did not want the job. She was drawing the rods between the wheels when Mr. Simpson loomed behind her. “Be here at eight thirty on Monday for a week’s trial,” he said. “Most girls bring a lunch.” 

It is no coincidence that right after that job interview Lizzie has an encounter which will open up her life in ways she never imagined. And also helps her to accomplish her goal: to take things into her own hands and bring up baby Barbara herself. To give her child the mothering she never had.

Toward the end of the book we see Lizzie as she finally leaves Belhaven behind. “As the last wagon disappeared, she was struck by the thought: no one knows I’m here. All her life she had been tied to her family, to Louis, to Edith, bound, like Gulliver by the Lilliputians, with many tiny bonds. Today she had severed them.” The very severing is proof of the courage she has attained in the course of the story.

Margot Livesey has given us an exhilarating historical novel filled with fascinating details of a different time in an isolated part of the world, all rendered in gorgeous prose. A novel that has relevance today because it addresses universal, timeless problems. A novel that reminds us what small acts of kindness and scorn can mean in a family and in a community. And how hope and resilience can prevail. Livesey’s compassion toward all her characters is not only a testament to her extraordinary gifts, but also reminds us that good fiction can affirm life and give us the sustenance we so badly need.

Roberta Silman is the author of five novels, a short story collection, and two children’s books. Her latest, Summer Lightning, has been released as a paperback, an ebook, and an audio book. Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review) is in its second printing and is available on Amazon. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at, and she can also be reached at

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