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Going Down Swinging

by Billie Livingston

Billie Livingston’s first novel sympathetically witnesses the precarious existence of a single mother and her seven-year-old daughter Grace in the early 1970s. Briefly a teacher, Eilleen Hoffmann has fallen into the service of alcohol, pills, and unreliable men. She manages on most occasions to conceal her casual hooking career from the authorities, and clean up in time to avoid losing her beloved Grace to the social services system. (An older daughter is already lost, AWOL from foster care.)

Set over two years in Toronto and Vancouver, the book is narrated alternately by Eilleen and Grace. Their stories are interspersed with the official record of their lives: standardized forms filled in by various child protection agents, social workers, and police departments. By any evidence, Eilleen’s life is a tail-biting snake: she drinks to escape from its realities, and its realities remain inescapable because she drinks. Meanwhile, Grace struggles with the loneliness and insecurity that mark her secondary role in such a life. Inevitably, the situation implodes, and Eilleen must make a choice: to succumb to her worst tendencies, or to save Grace and herself.

Despite its attempts at gritty realism, there’s an oddly generic texture to much of the novel. The litany of Eilleen’s problems is as numbingly repetitious as in real life, and the book lends no deeper insight into the nature of alcoholism beyond its implied origins in low self-esteem. The novel achieves its greatest interest in late-blooming digressions: a trippy depiction of Grace’s undiagnosed hypoglycemia, a draft-dodging social worker, a foster family’s warped theology. If she combines her obvious good intentions with such unique details next time, Livingston may yet achieve that unqualified success.


Reviewer: Lisa Godfrey

Publisher: Random House Canada


Price: $29.95

Page Count: 320 pp

Format: Cloth

ISBN: 0-679-31000-2

Released: Jan.

Issue Date: 2000-1

Categories: Fiction: Novels