For two traumatic days, Livvy Higgs is besieged by a series of small heart attacks while the ghost of her younger self leads her back through a past devastated by lies and secrets. The story opens in Halifax in 2009, travels back to the French Shore of Newfoundland during the mid-thirties and the heyday of the Maritime shipping industry, makes its way to wartorn Halifax during the battle of the Atlantic in World War II, then leaps ahead to the bedside of the elder Livvy.
Caught between a troubled past, and her present and worsening living conditions, Livvy is forced to pick apart the lies and secrets told by her greedy, prideful father, Durwin Higgs, who judges her a failure, and her formidable Grandmother Creed, who has mysteriously aligned herself with Livvy's father, despite their mutual hatred.
Tending to Livvy during her illness is her young next-door neighbour, Gen, a single mother and social-work student. Overnight, a violent scene embroils the two in each other's lives in a manner that will entwine them forever. In The Deception of Livvy Higgs, the inimitable Morrissey has written a powerful tale, the Stone Angel of the East Coast.
Donna Morrissey has written six nationally bestselling novels. She has received awards in Canada, the U.S., and England. Her novel Sylvanus Now was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and she was nominated for a Gemini for best writing for the film Clothesline Patch. Her fiction has been translated into several different languages. Born and raised in Newfoundland, she now lives in Halifax. She recently wrote a children’s book, Cross Katie Kross, illustrated by her daughter, Bridget. Morrissey grew up in The Beaches, a small fishing outport in Newfoundland & Labrador and now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I knew The Deception of Livvy Higgs was going to break my heart from the opening chapter. Canadian author Donna Morrissey has done it to me before - her prize winning first novel Kit's Law, is a favourite of mine.
Livvy Higgs is an eighty year old woman living alone in Halifax. Livvy is growing tired, she seems to be losing track of time and can't keep up with her day to day chores. As a winter storm batters the city, Livvy lies down just to rest a bit. But Livvy is more than just tired - in fact she is having a series of mini heart attacks. And as she drifts in and out of consciousness, she dreams....
"If there's one good thing age has taken from me, it's the burden of memories. In the past eighty years they've burned themselves out, leaving little more than a spattering of images that dim and glow like embers in the receding path of the fire they once were."
But, the memories are returning as she weakens. She dreams of the past and her life and what led her to the house she lives in. We are transported back to 1930's Newfoundland where young Livvy lives with her mother Cecile and shopkeeper father Durwin in the French outport of Sables d'Or. There are unspoken undercurrents between her parents and hints of a deal between her father and her maternal Grandmother Creed - despite the fact that they despise each other. Solace for Livvy and her mother is found in the raucous household of Missus Louis. The house is overrun with children, noise, food, chores, animals....and love.
Livvy's present day neighbour Gen, a single mom to young Ronny, checks on Livvy as she tries to venture out, but doesn't realize that she is ill. Gen has her own set of problems.
The story is told from past to present with Livvy uncovering and remembering more and more of her life. Livvy has been subjected to secrets, lies and manipulation since she was a small child.
"I sit digging at my palms, digging out nuggets of stories Mother seamed into my bones, I chink them into being, like a miner, and they fall onto my lap like ill-fitting pieces that fossilized before truth set them right. I search amongst them for the girl cloaking herself against a too horrible truth and who curls now inside the silence of an old woman's heart, her feelings too deep to be told."
Morrissey's prose just grab me and squeeze. They are raw and powerful, painting vivid pictures and evoke such strong emotions. Livvy's bewilderment, heartache, anger and reclamation of her life made my heart ache.
Livvy was the character who touched me the most - I think she reminded me a bit of my own gran, but all of the players were just as well drawn. I wanted to stay and visit with the boisterous Louis family, shout at her father, console her mother and dance with Henri.
Morrissey weaves much historical detail into her tale. The history of the shipping trade in Newfoundland and the importance of the Halifax Harbour during the war provided a rich backdrop to Livvy's story. Having visited Halifax last summer, I was able to vividly picture what Morrissey was describing. It really brought the book to life for me.
The Deception of Livvy Higgs stayed with me long after I turned the last page. This is one I'll definitely be recommending.
This compelling and tragic story is told by 80-year-old Livvy Higgs. Current health issues evoke long-dormant memories for the woman living in Halifax. She remembers her childhood in Sables d'Or on the French Shore of Newfoundland and her life in Halifax during the war.
None of the adults in Livvy's life come out well. Her mother tells the child, "Your father's a paltry white bastard...and I'm a stupid cow." Livvy's father tells her little. Her Grandmother Creed is another complicated adult not to be trusted.
As the lies and deceptions become clear to Livvy, she searches for a measure of peace. The memories of her man and his grandmother bring some serenity to the woman and does the presence of her young neighbour.
In THE DECEPTION OF LIVVY HIGGS, Donna Morrissey introduces readers to an unforgettable character whose formidable strength is rooted in the harsh but beguiling landscape of the East Coast.
Halifax 2009. Over two traumatic days, LIVVY Higgs is besieged by a series of small heart attacks. The ghost of her younger self leads her back to the French Shore of Newfoundland during the mid-thirties heyday of the Maritime shipping industry, through war torn Halifax during the Battle of the Atlantic, and back to the present day. Caught between a troubled past and her tenuous circumstances, Livvy is forced to pick apart the untruths told by her greedy, prideful father and her formidable grandmother, knowing that the past and the present are entwined. As the secrets start to unravel, she will finally find the redemption, peace, and forgiveness that only the truth can bring. 4 surprising stars ⭐️️⭐️️⭐️️⭐️️
This book left me stunned. Donna Morrissey's character development in this book is so fascinating, haunting, and heart-wrenching all at once that you can't tear your eyes from the page. I found myself wondering how people can be so, as the title suggests, deceptive! People lie to each other, and they lie to themselves so much that they start to believe their OWN lies. The Deception of Livvy Higgs is an important novel to read because it forces you to look at your own life, at some of the lies you have perhaps told in your life, and how even the smallest of white lies can have, sometimes, the biggest effect. Five enthusiastic stars for this amazing character driven novel.
Just Read: The Deception of Livvy Higgs (2013) - Donna Morrisey
Why write a negative review? To deprecate another’s work in order to promote one’s own? To shame or criticize another author? I hope these are not the aims. I agree with one of my heroes, a man of wit and depth of humane feeling, Roger Ebert, who frequently wrote “bad reviews:” the purpose of a bad review isn’t to dwell on what is “bad,” but actually draw attention to what is good - it identifies pitfalls whilst illuminating ideals. And though I personally believe that what we’re discussing here are cultural products, textual artifacts separate from their producers, with merits and flaws, I myself find criticism exceedingly difficult to take. My apologies in advance.
I didn’t like “The Deception of Livvy Higgs.” When the film Babel was released in 2006 it was provocatively described by some as “suffering porn.” I take issue with works that exist to both exploit and decry suffering. On one hand they exist to generate sympathy for their much abused characters. On the other they gather strength of interest and “compel” their readers by salacious accounts of misdeeds, guiltily consumed by the reading public, a sort of literary “if it bleeds it leads” ethos, only in this case dragging us through the usual litany of “family secrets,” some variety of abuse, perhaps an addiction… I don’t mean to be flippant: these are very real elements of too many real people’s lives. But do novels like this do much at all to ease our collective suffering, or to suggest alternate paths forward? This type of novel, I believe, has become something of a genre unto itself: a genre treasured by middle-class, comfortable “literary enthusiasts” who can imbibe a little suffering at arms length, and sigh over it at their leisure. I’ve never enjoyed this sort of read; “The Shipping News,” “Snow Falling on Cedars,” “White Oleander:” you know the type. And I just can’t help myself: many of these seem more likely than not to have a large “O” emblazoned on their cover.
Is there something wrong with the depiction of suffering in literature? Of course not: suffering lies at the heart of great literature. But there is a difference between high Tragedy (with a capital “T”), and the leaden “seamy coming-of-age story” set in Saskatoon, Kitsilano, Winnipeg (insert folksy Canadian locale here) that has become a Canadian staple. There exists a progression, I believe, in great literature that is lacking here. First, we acknowledge that life includes suffering. Second, we acknowledge that there are such things as Truth and Beauty. Third, we examine paths that lead from the suffering toward the aforementioned Beauty and Truth. Here, instead, we are dragged through the sordid, both the everyday and the extraordinary meanness, often drawn out for dramatic value, and provided at the work’s conclusion with a trite “I suppose it all worked out right in the end” statement of some sort. Why is Turgenev’s “Spring Torrents” a great work and this not, though they treat similar subject matter, namely entrapment and deception? Why is Duddy Kravitz at least a good work, and this not?
“Livvy Higgs” tells the story, through a series of flashbacks, of the life of the titular “heroine.” The elderly Higgs, because this is Canada and we need to demonstrate that we are familiar with Canadian literature, has been compared, poorly, and mostly by book jacket blurb providers, with “The Stone Angel’s” Hagar Shipley. The elderly Livvy, however, exists only as a more or less unnecessary frame for the predictably tortuous tale of bad fathers, woebegone mothers, cunning extended relations and shocking misdeeds. I have no complaints with Morrisey’s admittedly lucid and occasionally lyric (but oddly not lovely) prose. Her characters, however, seem to exist only to add new patina of shabbiness to an already shabby story. For a “strong woman” character, Livvy Higgs fails - she is constantly misled and in need of some variety of rescue, and seems to arrive at some sort of amorphous redemptive aphorism only at the novel’s end which may or may not be the end of her life. The novel’s structure is a little confusing: we are introduced to a cranky shadow of a woman, living in the ruins of a life lived apparently without much in the way of any joy or warmth, other than Livvy’s multiple cats (“crazy cat lady - ho, ho!”), yet by novel’s end we are expected to believe that her moderately horrific life has somehow produced a sainted wisdom and strength that has made her the pillar of warmth that she clearly wasn’t on page one. The novel concludes in a great gout of exposition that just doesn’t end - there is not one dark secret here, but a multitude that seems to take in even British treatment of Irish convicts - somehow relevant 3 generations before Livvy’s tale of woe. Instead of a shocking exposé we are forced through a tedious history lesson that does little to clarify Livvy’s situation, as oblivious to it as she’s been. If you are planning to read the novel, stop here; if not, I include Livvy’s great realization (or generalization, as the case may be), occurring on no less than the second to last page of the novel (there has been a lot of deception to squeeze in, apparently):
“A thought comes to me, it comes strong and hard, that evil is swallowed by repentance, that only the sin of it carries on, and sin is little more than a smoky thought, clearing itself with the breath of prayer.”
What?! Newfoundland gothic, indeed.
Again, the intention of my review isn’t to be mean spirited, but to decry a direction in literature that I believe best-seller tables and Canadian housekeeping magazine summer reading lists need to abandon. They won’t. This novel reads like a long dark Thanksgiving conversation that everyone wishes they hadn’t had. I won’t even set in on the mysandry. A critic recently quipped “Why does this film hate women?” This novel serves as it’s own long argument for why it hates men.
When I finished the text, I asked myself an exasperated “why?” and began furiously scribbling notes. What was the point? Those who don’t think they understand suffering will sit on their muskoka chairs, sip sommelier-recommended wine and read this shabby tale while their husbands and sons linger on Bay Street, and then discuss the book fervently: “wasn’t it horrible, those days?” And we’ll legitimize our experience by talking about the “lovely prose,” and the “bearing witness,” and be left with one more sad story, as though we don’t have any of our own, or don’t live in a world of turmoil enough. Those days are these days, and have ever been the days of men and women who live in a world of inequity, loss and injustice. But alternatives exist! I’ve little interest in disingenuously chewing the bones. The music of the spheres sounds high and bright somewhere far above the plane that this text can’t even seem to imagine.
Final Grade: D
Next up: “How to Live, or a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer” (2010) - Sarah Bakewell
This book was published in 2012. It being on my list to read for quite some time. But memoir and other non-fiction always takes priority. I’ve read all of Donna Morrissey’s previous books, and this one is definitely a favourite. I like the realness and depth of her characters. It’s as close to memoir as I feel fiction can come. The dialogue always so wonderful and real, spoken by unforgettable characters This book is about uncovering secrets and lies, and ghosts of the past. Her words just say it so much more beautifully than I am able… Page 252 Can’t imagine spending my life staking out enemies, then finding at the end there weren’t none, only my own fool heart. In the interview with Donna Morrissey at the back of the book I like when she says… Mostly, I wanted to show how the past can influence our present if we don’t go back through the years and learn what our wounds are and reframe them through the more mature eyes of adulthood over those of the deflective, defensive eyes of the child. And I so agree. She also says... And yet it is not the history of our place that compels me to write, but the individuals who lived there, and the love, tragedies, and triumphs of the human heart. I also had been unaware of the extent of Halifax’s involvement in the war, which made that part interesting. Donna also says... I believe that when we are betrayed in our younger years by those who love us most, it wounds us in ways that take greatness and the grace of God to overcome. Many are even unaware of their wounds; their pain is felt more by their loved ones on whom they project their hurts. What else can I say? I loved the realness of this book. It’s a great read. If you haven’t read it, pick it up, give it a go.
I was so excited to discover a new novel by Donna Morrissey since I’ve read and enjoyed all of her previous books. Again, she did not disappoint.
Livvy is an octogenarian living in Halifax. As her health fails, her dreams take her back to her childhood and adolescence in an isolated fishing village on the French Shore of Newfoundland where her father owned the general store. We meet Livvy’s ever-suffering mother Cecile whose relationship with her husband can be surmised by her constantly calling him a “’paltry white bastard’” (11); her proud father Durwin whose life seems fueled by rage; her manipulative maternal grandmother, Julia Creed, whose pre-occupation is the importance of outward appearances; and the comforting neighbour, Missus Louis, who provides consolation first to Cecile and later to Livvy.
From the beginning it is clear that there are skeletons in the family closet involving Livvy’s father and grandmother. Durwin accuses Grandmother Creed of cheating him and he tells her, “’you’ll not cheat me again’” (59). Cecile describes her mother as a liar: “’She lies, she always lies. She’s clever like the fox, always setting her little traps, twisting things, making lies out of truth – or truth out of lies . . . ‘” (38). Cecile’s opinion of her husband is no better; she tells her daughter, “’Your father’s like your Grandmother Creed. They think themselves better than everybody else, got chafed necks from their too-high collars’” (12). She accuses him of being a hypocrite and asks him, “’Who else have you tricked with your lies’” (16)? Cecile also thinks of both her husband and mother as cold-hearted: “’she takes everything and gives nothing. Durwin takes nothing and gives nothing’” (42). Furthermore, she thinks they conspired in some criminal activity: “’They’ll burn in hell, I pray they’ll burn in hell. . . . They done something, Durwin and my mother, they done something’” (129). As she shifts between present and past, Livvy tries to determine the truth and reconcile with her past.
The book jacket describes the book as “the Stone Angel of the East Coast” and Livvy is in a position similar to Hagar Shipley’s in Margaret Laurence’s novel – examining her early life. Livvy, like Hagar, is a memorable character, a strong-willed, cantankerous old woman “encroached by age and neglect” (35). Like Hagar, Livvy is also a dynamic character; she realizes that a person “has to believe in [his/]her story in order to live with it, to defend it, if only to [him/]herself. . . . it comes to me that Father, too, believed his story, else he wouldn’t have fought so hard to protect it. And Grandmother Creed. . . . What shame, what shame to suffer such loneliness when love was but a truth away” (270).
The novel addresses several forces (i.e. greed, pride, hate, love, anger) which can serve as overriding motivations since “fixing one’s mind too strongly on something can hatch fear and dread” (94). Livvy mentions that she has learned “how to salvage the most from the sweetest” (10), but she also learns how to salvage the most from the sourest that life has dealt her so she can still feel “sweet, sweet grace” (271).
A book that is entertaining and also gives a glimpse into the human condition is a great read – and this is definitely one of them.
Reminds me a bit of The Stone Angel, with its cantankerous-yet-indomitable old woman remembering her youth. Morrissey has a real knack with characterization and rendering a sense of place and I always feel like I've visited Eastern Canada after reading one of her books. She conveys the sense of the child trapped by circumstances beyond her control very well.
I loved Donna Morrissey's writing. Mind you, I always love her writing. We Canadians tell stories in a very different manner.
If you ever have a chance to attend a Donna Morrissey reading grab the opportunity. I saw her at Harbourfront in Toronto during the International Festival of Authors. She breathed life into her characters. What an actor! It was a reading as a reading should be.
This is a hard book to describe. The first half is very slow, I’m glad I persevered as the last half made up for it. Donna Morrissey has such a wonderful way of weaving a story. I just wish there had been more juice in the first half.
It took a while for me to get into this book. I'd pick it up, put it back down, while trying to decide whether to keep on reading it. I'm very glad I did. It worked it's way into my heart page by page, as the elderly Liv drifts back and forth in time, remembering her childhood and youth. The child of a loveless marriage, she loses her mother to an early death and is left behind with a cold, unpleasant father and a devious, manipulative grandmother who between them carry some pretty ugly secrets. Liv prevails, and in late life forms an emotional attachment to her next door neighbour Gen, a struggling single mother with a big heart. During a bad snowstorm, Liv drifts in and out of lucidity while experiencing a series of small medical incidents. During this time, she reviews her life. The ending is quite sweet. This was another enjoyable novel from Donna Morrissey. She's very skilled at portraying human complexities, and this book is a fine example of that.
I found many things to like about this book. I really enjoyed the clever way that Morrissey blended the past with the present. I liked the multi-generational story and the descriptions of the people and place. I liked the writing style - quite readable. The reason for only 3 stars is basically the final resolution. I was expecting so much more from the "deception". It really fell flat for me, or I didn't quite get it, but either way, it was disappointing. I also found the character of the next door neighbour - Gen - at best annoying and at worst - ridiculous. (honestly, SHE was studying to be a social worker?) and Henri's character by the end, a little hard to take. While the book was "fine", not sure I'd race out and get another by this author.
Donna Morrissey has quickly established herself as a must read author for me. I can't believe it took me so long to discover her! But now that I have, I intend to read everything! I haven't felt this kind of love for an author since Jane Austen, and that's saying something. A four star rating but only because I wanted more. MORE! Morrissey has a gift when it comes to character development, and so when it came to the present day relationship between Livvy and Gen, I wanted more time with them. Gen comes with her own history (and demons) and I kept thinking Morrissey would flesh that out a bit more. But wow, everything else about this story is perfect. I loved the slipping through time. Seamless. God, this woman can tell a tale!
The book is an enigma. I was mostly pulled forward; though it was slow and often dreary. A passage on page 260 sums up much of the story -- "Gawd-damn it, Liv, I don't know nothing about you. I don't know if you're shy or just plain not interested." Well there you have it, my feeling about much of the book. Morrissey writes to the negative spaces. She paints pictures with words that fill in the events around the heart of the story, but she never comes out and says "Ducky, this is what she's about." The impacts are predictable: my feelings of empathy were slow to build, and in the end, I feel something is missing. Yet while intellectually I feel I should be able to walk away and say "meh," Livvy Higgs haunts me. She will haunt me as I try to sleep tonight.
Morrissey's writing is fine enough. It doesn't weigh us down in description and trifle prose, yet it is not quite organically dramatic enough. The conflict is remote, almost subconscious. It is slow and muddked. Too often I wondered why certain passages needed to be written, and they seemed to run on forever. Yet her scene endings sparkle and make it all tie together. "Ahhh, okay, that's why we went there and did that." Want to explore scene endings? Donna is a master.
Theme is written overtly; just pay attention to italics: "We're all drunk on something, luv, some a bit more than others." Why slap us in the face with thematic statements and aphorisms? Because the story is weak and doesn't explicitly show it in action? I kept asking this question and never satisfied myself. Yes, I get the themes, I think.
Some of the history gnaws at me. WWII Halifax and we have running water and automatic washing machines. Creed lives in a bungalow next to Point Pleasant Park, the land of Victorian Homes. To me bungalows are post-war creations and foreign even today in old Halifax. Maybe I need to visit there more.
Gen's situation seemed excessive to me. Crawls to a basement door handcuffed in a snowstorm? Sensationalism? I mock it.
The ending did not hit home. It was cryptic. I invest 260 pages of effort reading a story and it drifts away with a smile. It's a contemporary short story ending that nobody really ever understands, but because it is so cryptic, so MFA, it must be good. Seriously, I'd like to close a book knowing what the transformation was.
To summarize, I am glad I read this story. I somehow feel enriched by it, sad and gloomy but enriched nonetheless.
Life is too short to try to finish a book that I really didn’t enjoy. So I didn’t , finish that is. I struggled to get halfway through, then thought, no I didn’t retire to read boring books. I picked this up because it was a Canadian author and generally, I have been very impressed with their writing. But not this time.
Maybe this one was just too deep for me, but though it had Morrissey's usual excellent writing and I thought at first I would love it, I found the dénouement very unsatisfying and the promising characters mired in seemingly endless layers of deceptions.
In her old age and her approaching death, Livvy Higgs is reliving her difficult childhood. It is hard to tell if the replay of her life gives her new insights, and that bothered me. It seems that her mother never was able to get past her childhood (I guess her mother never really had a chance to do so), and there is some sense that Livvy has not either. Livvy seems to have remained rather isolated. It is difficult to imagine how a person like Livvy is able to interpret almost everything in a negative way.
There did seem to be some resolution with her grumpy acceptance of her neighbor Gen and Gen's son Ronny. At the very end she is able to think about Gen and allows her to call an ambulance -perhaps the life review was helpful after all
I found myself rather depressed by the older Livvy as she forgets to eat and thinks she ought to take out the garbage or feed the cats, and then keeps falling asleep. I am almost as old as Livvy (although I have had a much easier life), and kept wondering if I was also doing some of the typical old people forgetful things.
Still, it is nice to read a book that you don’t want to put down, and Morrissey is definitely a writer that I find compelling even when I don’t care much for the story. The writing is wonderful. The story not so much.
The parts of this novel set in Newfoundland and wartime Halifax are exquisitely written, and make for some incredibly evocative & gripping storytelling. However, I wasn't enamored with the present-day story-line, and felt irritated every time the plot cycled back to the modern setting. This is also a terribly dark and cynical story, and there isn't much in the way of genuine happiness to be found in the lives the characters, making for a very grim and relentless atmosphere. There's more than enough here to grab hold of one's imagination, but it definitely falls under my personal classification of "something I admire more than love".
Every time I read one of Morrissey's books, I feel emotionally bereft and find myself asking, "what just happened"? I had trouble with some of the flashbacks as time merged and I wasn't sure where I was sometimes, perhaps like 80 year old Livvy as she struggled with her memories. The history of NFLD and Halifax before, during and after WWII was interesting. I enjoyed the two voices of Livvy: young and old. The cover of the edition of the book I have shows a faceless young woman dressed up with a case in her hand. Is it Grandmother Creed during her travelling days?
While I always enjoy Donna Morrisey's writing, I found this story a bit frustrating. The character of Livvy just somehow did not connect with me. I did not find myself sympathizing , liking , or disliking her. She simply .... was. And the character of Gen was just too bizarre to be taken seriously. On the whole, I did enjoy the read. But I would not highly recommend it to friends. It was okay.
Donna Morrissey is an amazing story teller and this book is no exception. I was drawn in within the first few pages and enjoyed every last word. Set in western Newfoundland and in Halifax during WWII, there are details of Halifax's crucial involvement in the war that are not normally included in general fiction, but add so much to the vivid setting of this story. Loved it!
Thank you AGAIN Donna Morrissey. Your stories are taking me on a trip within my road trip!!
New 'endearment' from this story... Macushlah... The title is a transliteration of the Irish mo chuisle meaning "my pulse" as used in the phrase a chuisle mo chroí which means "pulse of my heart", and thus mo chuisle has come to mean "darling" or "sweetheart".
I liked this book more so at the end. It took me a long time to get into it but once I did I couldn't put it down. I did laugh out loud a few times at the Newfoundland Dialect, and it did sometimes make me feel as though I was there! Overall worth the read, just not my favorite Donna Morrissey novel.
I am torn about this book because at first I did not like it but the more I read the more Livvy stayed on my mind. Secrets, it is all about secrets that continually affect your life and the decisions you make.
I did not like the author's style...far too many descriptive words and long-winded sentences. It was very difficult to get into it and find the thread of a plot but eventually it improved although for all the hype I certainly wouldn't recommend it or read it again.
Tough to get through the first half, but picked up eventually. Didn't like the jumping between past and present, the confusion was a deterrent rather than a smart writing style. Some cool historical facts, but kept worrying about the cats through most of the book.