We’ll survive. That’s what we do.” Such is the central sentiment of Billie Livingston’s fourth novel, a sombre yet striking story of a small group of damaged characters connected by their efforts to endure, through faith or otherwise, the pain of overwhelming loss and the intense desire to be freed from guilt and fear.
The trinity of Ben, his estranged wife, Maggie, and her brother, Francis, forms the core of the story. As the novel opens, Ben, a limousine driver, is in a state of dissociation in a hospital psychiatric ward. He is recovering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, an assumed suicide attempt. We soon learn that he and Maggie have recently suffered unspeakable tragedy – the accidental death of their two-year-old son, Frankie – and both are riddled with unrelenting guilt.
Maggie, the mentally stronger of the two, is struggling to regain some normalcy and return to her work as a caregiver, but is haunted by the memory of her child: “I can feel his little bum in my lap, his warm back against my chest. Ghostly and real at once.” Weighed down by grief, worried about Ben, and saddled with a particularly needy elderly client, Maggie finds her resiliency put to the test.
Adding to her difficulties is her older brother, Francis, a disgraced Catholic priest with a drinking problem and an insatiable need for sex, who has recently been arrested on another DUI. Francis is a wonderfully complex character, probably the most interesting in the novel because of his inherent goodness and determination to rise above his human frailties and contradictions. Despite not understanding why her self-destructive brother insists on remaining in the church, Maggie provides refuge for Francis in his time of need. He, in turn, plays a pivotal role in the novel’s resolution – a resolution that suggests there is hope for the survival, and maybe more, of this wounded trio.
The Crooked Heart of Mercy’s dark subject matter allows Livingston to explore, in characteristically intelligent prose, weighty ideas, not the least of which is the role of faith, in its many forms, in healing and forgiveness.