Banishing Verona

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Overview

Zeke is twenty-nine and working as a carpenter and painter in London. Verona is thirty-seven, headstrong, and seven months pregnant. When the two meet in a house that Zeke is renovating, they fall in love, only to be separated less than 24 hours later when Verona mysteriously disappears. After much searching, Zeke discovers that Verona has travelled to Boston to help Henry, her brother, disentangle himself from some shady financial matters. As impulsively as he fell for Verona, Zeke decides to follow her to ...

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Banishing Verona: A Novel

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Overview

Zeke is twenty-nine and working as a carpenter and painter in London. Verona is thirty-seven, headstrong, and seven months pregnant. When the two meet in a house that Zeke is renovating, they fall in love, only to be separated less than 24 hours later when Verona mysteriously disappears. After much searching, Zeke discovers that Verona has travelled to Boston to help Henry, her brother, disentangle himself from some shady financial matters. As impulsively as he fell for Verona, Zeke decides to follow her to Boston. It is here that both lovers take on further and more desperate searches of their own, and Livesey's sophisticated novel evolves into the most surprising and suspenseful of modern love stories.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An enthralling, unconventional boy-meets-girl story."—People(four stars)

"In Banishing Verona, Livesey, a first-rate storyteller, examines the ties that bind families and lovers. Her take on life is original, her use of perspective is deft, and her prose lovely. Zeke is captivating."—USA Today

"Livesey is interested not in medical conditions but in the human condition. . . . In fact, [she] expands (as is fiction's mission) our notion of what being human can mean."—The New York Times

"In Livesey's deft hands, their connection is as credible (and incredible) as love itself....[She] pulls it off effortlessly."—The Boston Globe

"Tantalizing . . . Livesey has taken a familiar plot device and has turned it into such a delicious literary construct that it seems new."—Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Richard Eder
What this reviewer will say is that the story line in Banishing Verona is one of fiction's four or five classic chestnuts. And that Margot Livesey, though British, has whipped hers into the airborne delicacy known to the French as a Mont Blanc. Use the finest ingredients, the French advise, and Ms. Livesey has. Lace it with a curious home-distilled intoxicant; the French probably wouldn't, but Ms. Livesey certainly has.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Livesey's lovely fifth novel tells the story of Zeke, a 29-year-old London housepainter with "the face of a Raphael angel" and an autism-like difficulty relating to other people, and Verona, who shows up at a house Zeke is working on, very pregnant and claiming to be the owners' niece. After they spend a night together, Verona disappears, leaving a pair of painter's coveralls nailed to the floor. Neither can forget the other. As Zeke goes on a hunt for the mysterious Verona, she calls him-from Boston, where she has, in a slightly far-fetched turn of events, gone to hunt down her blithely amoral brother, Henry, to convince him to repay his creditors, who have begun threatening her. Zeke heeds her instructions to meet her there, only to spend days alone in a hotel room as she contacts him from New York and then from London, when, Henry's financial matters settled, she abruptly goes home. Devastated, he returns to London, ignores her calls (even burying his answering machine to fully banish her), but finally gives in to the powerful connection he felt the moment he met her. The off-kilter chronology of their alternating stories works well, and both Zeke and Verona have just enough quirks to be endearing without being implausible; the supporting characters are similarly well realized. As Livesey (Eva Moves the Furniture) gently probes the depths of longing, betrayal and forgiveness, her gift for creating sublimely unexpected sentences is abundantly on display: Zeke's "emotions were swirling and scattering like leaves in a playground on a windy day; he glimpsed joy, rage, hope, amazement, jealousy, frustration and exaltation flashing by." "You're the opposite of Narcissus," an old girlfriend of Zeke's tells him. Moments like these are ghosts that dance in the reader's vision long after the photographer's flashbulb has popped. Agent, Amanda Urban. Author tour. (Nov. 3) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Livesey (Eva Moves the Furniture) here tells the deceptively simple love story of Zeke, a 29-year-old painter and carpenter with the face of a Raphaelite angel, and 37-year-old Verona, a pregnant radio host. In the 17 hours they spend together, they fall in love-only to be separated and put through impossible and unbearably stressful situations. This is not, then, the story of Zeke and Verona together but of Zeke and Verona apart, each with a separate narrative thread (Verona must save her brother and Zeke, his family's grocery business). As we follow their individual physical and psychological peregrinations from London to Boston and back again, we hope for the best but realize that perhaps we are hoping for too much. This gem of a novel manages to be funny, frightening, and upbeat all at the same time. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/04.]-Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A housepainter with Asperger's syndrome and a pregnant, unmarried radio host meet under false pretenses, have sex, and then are separated for nearly the duration of this unsparing yet cautiously hopeful story examining love's many varieties. From such seemingly unpromising materials, Livesey (Eva Moves the Furniture, 2001, etc.) constructs another of her reflective but surprisingly gripping tales about odd people in peculiar circumstances that nonetheless reveal a great deal about human nature. Zeke Cafarelli thinks Verona MacIntyre is the niece of the couple whose London house he is painting-naturally enough, since she tells him so, and Zeke can barely grasp conventional social interactions, let alone something as complicated as a person telling a lie. In fact, Verona extracted Zeke's name from a mutual friend ("people were always getting themselves out of sticky situations by offering his services," he thinks ruefully) because she needs a place to hide after being menaced by two men trying to collect a bad debt from her ne'er-do-well younger brother Henry, whose increasingly erratic (but always self-protective) actions soon pluck his sister from Zeke's bed and send her off to Boston. Meanwhile, Zeke's father has a heart attack, his mother confesses she's having an affair, and they both want him to help out in the family grocery store. Instead, he follows Verona to Boston, sure that "after less than twenty-four hours he knew Verona better than anyone." She has the same mysterious sense of connection, although every one of the plot developments-and they are many and twisty, though always credible-suggest that no one ever really knows anyone else. From Zeke's preoccupied parents toVerona's increasingly hateful brother, each character has compelling reasons for actions that range from merely selfish to malignantly self-serving, yet the tone here is never bitter. Rather, the author seems gently amused by her creatures' follies and tenderly protective of Zeke and Verona, who deserve some good luck in love even though both are more than a little nutty. Like all Livesey's novels: notable for her penetrating knowledge of the human heart coupled with respect for its essential mysteries, both explored in elegant, evocative prose. Author tour. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312425203
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 9/1/2005
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 1,407,901
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.81 (d)

Meet the Author

Margot Livesey

Margot Livesey is the author of five novels, including Homework and Eva Moves the Furniture, as well as the story collection Learning By Heart. Born in Scotland, she lives in Boston, Massachusetts, where she is the writer in residence at Emerson College.

Biography

Margot Livesey is the award-winning author of a story collection, Learning by Heart, and of the novels Homework, Criminals, The Missing World, and Eva Moves the Furniture, which was a New York Times Notable Book, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of the Year, and a PEN/Winship finalist. Born in Scotland, she currently lives in the Boston area, where she is writer in residence at Emerson College.

Author biography courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Livesey:

"My worst job was a very brief stint at a Hare Krishna factory in Toronto, packing incense. The combination of compulsory prayers and of having my friends get out their handkerchiefs whenever I entered a room soon made me give notice. My favorite job was working as a cleaner at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London. We managed to do the work in half the time we were paid for and I loved pushing my broom around the galleries, getting to look at the art day after day."

"The first Americans I ever met were a family who came to teach for a year at the boys' school where my father taught. They invited us over for New Year's Eve and instead of the usual festivities spent the evening showing us slides of their very extensive holidays in Yosemite. Ever since I've had a mild aversion to slide shows and I still haven't been to Yosemite."

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    1. Hometown:
      Boston, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 24, 1953
    2. Place of Birth:
      Perth, Scotland
    1. Education:
      B.A. in English and philosophy from the University of York, England

Read an Excerpt

BANISHING VERONA

Zeke

1

He had replaced five lightbulbs that day and by late afternoon could not help anticipating the soft ping of the filament flying apart whenever he reached for a switch. The third time, the fixture in the hall, the thought zigzagged across his mind that these little explosions were a sign, like the two dogs he had come across in the autumn, greyhound and bulldog, locked together on the grassy slope of the local park. He had given them a wide berth; still, he had felt responsible when on the bus next day a man turned puce and fell to the floor. By the fifth bulb, though, he had relinquished superstition and was blaming London Electricity. Some irregularity in the current, some unexpected surge, was slaughtering the bulbs. He pictured a man at head office filling his idle minutes by pulling a lever. Meanwhile, hour by hour he emptied the upstairs rooms, slipping the bulbs from bedside lights and desk lamps.

He had just replaced the fifth bulb when the doorbell rang. Often, if he were up a ladder, Zeke didn't bother to answer the knocks and rings of late afternoon; the owners of the house, the Barrows, were away and the callers were never for him. But now the pallor of the sky, the flashes of light and dark, the weariness of working alone, all conspired to make even the prospect of rebuffinga smartly dressed double-glazing salesman, or a disheveled collector for Oxfam, a pleasure. Last Friday, in a similar mood, he had found a boy on the doorstep, thin as a junkie, pretending to be blind. He had the dark glasses, the cane, the fluttery stuff with the hands. You're a painter, he had said, sniffing slightly. Zeke had given him fifty pence. Later he had looked out of the window and seen the boy sitting on a wall, reading a newspaper.

He set aside the wallpaper steamer and went to open the front door. On the doorstep a woman, minus collecting tin or clipboard, filled his vision. He hadn't replaced the hall bulb yet, and in the dim light her features took a moment to assemble. He made out abrupt dark eyebrows above a substantial nose and plump, glistening lips—the opposite of pretty.

Briefly, Zeke was baffled. Then he went through the steps he'd learned from the poster he'd been given at the clinic. Eyes wide, a glimpse of teeth, corners of the mouth turning up rather than down—usually these indicated a smile, which could, he knew, mean anger but often meant the opposite. Yes, she was smiling, although not necessarily for him. Her expression had clearly been prepared in advance, but he admired the way she held her face steady at the sight of him, and of his work clothes. His jeans and shirt were so paint-spattered as to be almost a separate entity.

"Good afternoon." She stretched out a hand and, seeing his, white with plaster, faltered, neither withdrawing nor completing the gesture.

"Hi," he said, hating the single stupid syllable. She was tall for a woman, his height save for the step, and dimly familiar, though not as herself. As she began to speak, he realized who she reminded him of: the bust of Beethoven on his father's piano, something about the expansiveness of her features, the way her tawny hair sprang back from her forehead.

"I'm the Barrows' niece," she said.

In the cold air her breath streamed toward him, feathery plumes, carrying more words, perhaps an entire sentence, which Zeke lost as he took in the little beads of moisture on her upper lip.When her mouth stopped moving he said, "I'm Zeke, the painter. The Barrows are away."

"But they told you I was coming," she said, with no hint of a question. He was still wondering—had they or hadn't they?—when she stooped, and he saw that she was not alone. Before he could offer to help she swept past him, a suitcase in each hand. He turned from closing the door to find she had set the cases at the foot of the stairs and was standing in the doorway, surveying the living room. Under the influence of her attention, Zeke saw again what his work had revealed: the ragged plaster painted not a single color but in pale bands of blue and brown, gray and yellow, the work of some artist he couldn't name. In the middle of the floor, like an ungainly prehistoric animal, squatted the furniture, piled up and draped in dust sheets.

"Cool," she said. "You could do a mural, hunting and fishing, golfing and shopping."

"I don't think your aunt and uncle—" Then he caught himself: humor. That had always been tricky for him. Even a question about a hen crossing the road could make him pause. "I told them it was a big job. You never know what you'll find underneath the paper. And Emmanuel, the guy who helps me, did his back in."

"How?" she said.

"What?"

"How"—she patted the small of her own back—"did he hurt his back?"

"Reaching for a corner, he claims. Snooker, not painting." In the bare space their voices emerged as if they were on a stage. Hers was unusually deep, warm, and melodious. It made him think of the chiming of his favorite clock. As for his, Zeke wasn't sure. He had read that humans hear their own voices through the jaw rather than the air; every time a tooth is lost or filled, the timbre changes.

"When are my aunt and uncle due back?"

"This Saturday, they told me."

She moved her head up and down and finally took off her coat.He had noticed earlier, returning from even a quick trip to the corner shop, how the emptiness of the room made it seem as if the cold had followed him indoors; in fact, the heating was on full blast (not his bill), and the house was snug as a tea cozy. She retreated to sling her coat over the banister and advanced into the room in the same greedy way she'd entered the house, her dark-green dress swaying as she walked. In the bay she turned, and he saw, silhouetted against the window, her belly.

"Don't," she said, "let me interrupt your work."

A sentence appeared in Zeke's head: I'd like to tie you to the bed. How did that get there, inside his brain, about this woman? He had never done, or even considered doing, such a thing. "I won't," he said.

He was no longer certain she was ugly, only that he wanted to keep looking to make sure. But in the empty room he did not dare. This must be why people had furniture, not just for comfort but, like clothing, for camouflage. While he stood rooted beside his worktable, puzzling over these aberrant thoughts, she wandered from one spot to the next, talking about the time she had painted her room.

"I was fifteen," she said, circling the fireplace, "when my parents agreed to let me do it. First I wrote on the wall the names of everyone I wanted to get rid of—mother, father, brother, the boy at school who didn't like me—then I slapped on the paint, unfortunately deep purple."

"Did it work?" he asked, imagining all the things he could write.

Her head, her eyes, swung toward him and he had the sense of being seen at last. "Well, it worked for the boy at school, but not"—her eyebrows dashed together—"for my brother."

She walked over to examine the little tower of empty takeaway containers he had made, precariously balanced beside his worktable. Was he collecting them, she asked and, without waiting for an answer, launched into another story. Years ago, when she'd been hitchhiking outside Oxford, a man who sold these containershad picked her up. "I remember it started to pour. The windscreen wipers were going full tilt and suddenly he said do you ever think of killing yourself? His voice was so casual, I thought I'd misunderstood."

Zeke's skin prickled.

"Then he asked if I'd read Steppenwolf. I said yes, though to be honest I wasn't sure. It's one of those books that for a while was in the ether. I looked over at this stout middle-aged man, and his eyes were full of tears. I think of it every day, he said. There's always the razor and the knife."

Was she trying to tell him she was upset, he wondered. If so, he needed to confess that he was no good at metaphors and subtexts and other people's problems. But already she was examining a roll of lining paper and asking its purpose. He explained about the old houses of London, how the walls were held up by wood-chip paper. When you removed it, which he'd spent the last three days doing, the only way to get a smooth finish was to put on new paper and paint over that.

"Let me make some tea," he concluded, backing out of the room. In the kitchen, he hovered beside the dormant kettle and, to his own stupefaction, imagined telling her the story of his breakdown. Surely she would listen to him like she had the container salesman. Don't, he admonished. You only met her fifteen minutes ago. Even people he had known for years tended to back away when he mentioned his difficulties. As the kettle rumbled to a boil he heard a thud from the hall, followed by another. Her stockinged feet appeared in the doorway, and he understood not only the noises he'd just heard but those that came most nights through his bedroom ceiling: one shoe, two shoe.

"Which side are you on?" he said, offering a mug of tea.

"Roundheads or cavaliers? Arsenal or Chelsea? Flat earth or solar system?"

"Mr. or Mrs. Barrow. Whose niece are you?"

"Mister's, can't you tell?" She turned and, heels striking the floor, carried her tea upstairs.

Alone with his own tea, Zeke thought, I am profoundly boring. He searched high and low in the rooms of his brain, checking the long front hall, the living room, the dining room, the narrow stairs, and couldn't find a trace of disagreement.

Normally he quit at five, but today he kept pressing spackle into even the smallest cracks until close to six-thirty. Then, in the face of an unbroken silence from above, he admitted defeat. He tidied his tools, washed his hands, and called the news of his departure, wanly, up the stairs.

"Wait." There she was on the landing. "Are you coming tomorrow? When?"

Her tawny hair was sticking up like a cockatoo's crest. "I aim for eight," he told her. "Not to worry. I can let myself in."

"I need keys." She swam down the stairs into the light, stopping on the last one, hand outstretched. He should have guessed then from the way her hazel eyes fastened on his that something was awry, either she wasn't on good terms with her aunt and uncle or Ms. F—weren't all fetuses female at first?—was a problematic guest, but the warmth of her breath, the lilt of her perfume, expunged rational thought. Helpless, he laid the keys in her palm.

"Will you be up to let me in?" he said. One cheek, her left, bore the crease of a pillow.

"Up with the lark, up with the milkman."

"Are you all right?" he found himself asking.

"Probably," she said. And then—surely all the buses of London rose an inch into the air—she leaned forward and pressed her lips, gently, to his.

 

 

The next morning Zeke rang the bell, knocked, tried the knob. The door stayed shut, the windows dark. Feeling like a dolt, he even bent down and called through the letter box. By the end of five minutes, he was holding on to himself, a kite on a gusty day. He fished around in his pockets, his bag, and was rewarded with a vision of his mobile phone in the pocket of his other jacket. As hewalked around the corner, he counted the cigarette butts in the gutter—some crushed, some not—to keep himself from floating away. Seven, eight, eleven. Twice he had to stop and retrace his steps to make sure he hadn't missed one. Look down, he thought, not up. In the forecourt of the underground station, he saw a free phone and, trying not to think of all the hands, the mouths, that had passed this way, dialed the Barrows' number. The answering machine clicked on with a brief nasal message. She's stepped out for a paper, he told himself; she's taking a bath. Walking back, he forgot about the cigarettes and placed his feet securely in the middle of each paving stone.

At the house, nothing had changed. He knocked, rang, shouted again, before climbing in through the living room window. He had opened it the day before while using the steamer and, in the excitement of her arrival, neglected his usual security measures. Now the ease with which the sash slid up made him feel stricken. He had left her at the mercy of any passing vandal.

Inside he began to tiptoe toward the hall; then, reconsidering, attempted his normal stride. "Hello. Anyone home?"

He switched things on: kettle, radio, lights. Even the man at London Electricity had forgotten him. Everything worked perfectly. He made the obligatory cup of tea and set to work, but after ten minutes of sanding he couldn't stand it. The awful possibility—she was gone—leaped into his head and ricocheted around. He laid the sandpaper aside and, wiping his powdery hands on his jeans, climbed the stairs.

He had reconnoitered the first day he had the house to himself, as he always did, flitting through bedrooms, checking wardrobes and cupboards and the dark spaces beneath desks and tables. He wasn't snooping for kinky underwear or exotic substances but rather—it was the way he coped with strange houses—looking for a hiding place. Sometimes, when he felt particularly shaky, he even stored provisions there: a bottle of water, a packet of biscuits. Here at the Barrows', he'd chosen the pedestal desk in the study. With his knees drawn up, the wooden U was an almost perfectfit. Now he moved from one lightbulbless room to another. In the master bedroom the tattered floral wallpaper made his teeth ache. Then the study, his hiding place, surrounded by machines: computer, printer, fax, even a photocopier. Last, the spare room, distinguished by the boxes stacked along the wall and the miscellaneous furniture.

Had he ever been so glad to see a suitcase? The larger of the two lay open at the foot of the bed, revealing a tumble of garments, red, purple, white, blue; the smaller, still closed, stood by the window with a red sticker proclaiming FRAGILE. Neither, unfortunately, had a label with her name. He stepped over to the bed and knelt to bury his face in the pillow. Here she was, and here.

The scrape of a door hurled him to his feet. The last thing he wanted was to be caught mooning over a pillow. "Hello," he called, starting down the stairs.

She was in the hall, her cheeks glowing, her hair darker than the day before, bearing the marks of a comb. "I went to get us fried-egg sandwiches." She flourished a paper bag.

Us, he thought. "Thank you," he said, and explained, though she didn't seem concerned, that he had broken in. In the kitchen he set out plates, salt and pepper, sheets of paper towel. He had had his usual bowl of cereal only an hour ago; now, following her example, he ate ravenously. She was wearing a faded blue sweatshirt, the sleeves rolled up as if it had once belonged to someone else, the hem stretched tight over her belly. How far along was she, he wondered, trying to recall various friends. Six months, maybe seven. Watching her raise the bread to pepper the egg, he realized he had dreamed about her the night before.

Only a fragment remained, her winching a metal bucket, brimming with water, out of a well. But before he could tell her, she was talking again. One spring, apparently, she had worked as a cleaner in an office building and had eaten a fried-egg sandwich every day. From the way she spoke, he understood that this was not her present occupation.

"So what are we doing today?" she said, wiping her hands on the paper towel. "Putting up lining paper?"

He began to stammer. He was making good progress. Besides, her aunt and uncle were paying him a fair wage.

"But you must need help," she said, "and I need something to take my mind off things."

At the time he assumed a covert reference to her pregnancy. Later, when he scrutinized her every utterance, it became one of those mysterious manhole covers, briefly raised over the dark river of secrecy. Meanwhile, before he could urge further objections—the dust, the fumes—she had spotted a pair of coveralls hanging on the back door, and the next thing he knew she had scrambled into them and was demonstrating how well they fit; her belly split the front like a chestnut its shell. "Come on," she said. "I bet you're paid by the job, not the hour."

At first he was embarrassed telling a woman, older he guessed by perhaps a decade, what to do, but she turned out to be much more biddable than Emmanuel. As they finished the sanding, he on the ladder, she on foot, she lobbed questions in his direction. Despite her careless manner, he sensed that she was in fact listening to whatever he chose to answer. Whereas the doctors, without exception, as soon as he opened his mouth, had focused on pencil sharpeners, radiators, doorknobs. They were paid—not enough, not by him—to barely feign attention, scribble a couple of notes, and finally write a prescription that would propel him, thank God, out of their offices. But this woman with her fierce brow, her chapped knuckles, for whatever reason actually seemed interested.

"So." She folded sandpaper onto the sanding block. "How did you become a painter? Is it the family business, or your heart's desire?"

"Neither." In the hope of asking about her, he offered himself. "My father was a greengrocer in Brighton. He got up at four every day except Sunday to go to market. Then he worked until seven at night, keeping the shop stocked, dealing with customers."

"Brighton is nice. Did you live near the sea?"

"If I stood on my bed on tiptoe, there was a little triangle of water." He had done this precisely once, dismayed at what his maneuver had revealed. Now he climbed down the ladder, moved it four feet, climbed back up, and started on the next stretch of cornice.

"I used to think," she said, "life would make sense if I could see the sea every day."

"Not for me." He brushed away a cobweb. "A street makes sense, a house makes sense, but the sea just goes on and on: wave, wave, wave. I couldn't wait to get away. We moved when I was ten." In London, Highbury, his parents had a new shop, bigger and busier. "I used to help in the evenings, on Saturdays, stocking the bins, fetching and carrying. Then one day one of our regulars, Mrs. Oma, said when you're the boss and suddenly I realized what my father was preparing me for. I started to pay attention in school, do my homework. It drove him mad. 'Do you want to be a dreamer all your life,' he used to say, 'head stuck in a book?'"

"Careful," she said.

Beneath his savage gestures the ladder swayed like a sapling.

Over fresh sandpaper he admitted he had studied accounting at university. "I wanted to do anthropology—I'd read this book about the rain-forest tribes of Papua, New Guinea—but I didn't have the nerve. I needed to know I was heading toward a job." She didn't ask the obvious question, and, as he finished the upper half of the wall, this enabled him to venture into that territory he'd imagined while making tea the previous afternoon. "The day after my final exams I couldn't leave the house. The people I shared with had all gone away, and I'd been looking forward to having the place to myself. But as soon as I stepped outside I worried that I'd left the gas on or the iron or the lights or I hadn't locked the door or I hadn't locked the window or I hadn't flushed the toilet or my mother was trying to phone. It didn't matter how often I checked, it didn't matter if I wrote down that I'd checked, I'd reach the street and have to go back. Remember in Gulliver'sTravels when the Lilliputians tie him down? It was like that. Hundreds of strands of anxiety tugging at me. Soon it was easier not to try to get away."

"That sounds horrid," she said.

He set the ladder aside and began to cut the lining paper. She was still listening, he could tell from the angle of her head, and to the accompaniment of the scissors' muttering blades he finished his story. "When I got better I knew I couldn't be an accountant. I like numbers, the way they can't be two things at once, but I couldn't cope with the people on the other end of them. One of our neighbors did odd jobs and I started helping him. Phil is different. Not like me," he added hastily. A strip of paper released from the roll fell to the floor. "Words take longer to get from one part of his brain to another, like running in sand, but they always arrive. I felt okay with him and gradually—he wanted to be a piano tuner—I took over the business."

"Your dad must have gone nuts."

A hot, dry wind blew through the room. Zeke dropped the scissors. "Break," he said.

 

 

He started to ask her questions, the same ones she'd asked him, where she grew up, what her mum and dad did. After all these hours it was too late to ask her name. Other topics too, he sensed—her presence here, Ms. F's father—would be unwelcome. She told him she'd grown up near York. Her father had managed a golf course and then bluffed his way into teaching at a private school. His only qualification was being able to talk the hind legs off a donkey. Her mother, after years as a bored housewife, had opened a junk shop. "She'd invent the most amazing histories for her goods: this was Marie Antoinette's hot water bottle, this was Hitler's fountain pen. I take after both of them."

"Do you mean that?" Zeke said.

She looked up from the paper she was spreading with paste, her eyes narrowing as if to distinguish some distant landmark. "Yesand no. I grew up determined to be as different from them as possible, but since they died a few years ago sometimes I'll catch myself tying my shoelaces in the same fussy way my mother did. Or overtipping in a restaurant just so no one will think I'm my father's daughter."

"I'm sorry they're dead," he said.

She dipped the brush in the paste and drew it steadily across the paper. "I studied English at university. That's almost as useless as anthropology."

At lunchtime she opened a tin of tomato soup and he shared the ham sandwiches he'd brought. They worked on through the darkening afternoon. Oughtn't she to take a rest, he wondered, but now that they were putting up the lining paper she seemed determined to finish. She shrugged off his suggestion that they wait until tomorrow. The streetlights came on, buzzy amber splodges; in the houses opposite, curtains were drawn. He bungled the last piece of paper, a tricky corner, then bungled it again. "If at first you don't succeed," she chanted from the foot of the ladder, "try, try, and try again. My English teacher used to say that all the time."

While he mounted the ladder once more she described Robert the Bruce, a rebel leader hiding in a cave on some Scottish mountain, drawing inspiration from the arachnid's repeated efforts to anchor its web. Zeke smoothed the top of the paper into place and, slowly descending, pressed the seams together.

Now what, he thought, glancing around the bare room. Dismissal?

"Maybe you could make a fire," she said, "while I see if there's anything for supper?"

"A fire?" For a moment he saw himself soaking the dust sheets with petrol, the flames leaping at the pile of furniture, but then she pointed at the fireplace, the grate messy with cinders. She left the room and he knelt to roll newspapers, add kindling, firelighters, and coal, tasks he hadn't performed since leaving his drafty house at university. When he came into the kitchen, she was at the stove,stirring a saucepan. "Frozen lasagna," she announced. "Tinned spinach, fresh carrots. There's beer in the cupboard under the stairs."

"Thanks. I think I'll have some juice."

"Don't you drink?"

"Not often. It makes me ..." He hesitated between weird and stupid.

Presumably he chose the latter, because she said, "Not so stupid you don't know it." She reached for a glass and he saw the golden-brown liquid topped with froth. Stop, he wanted to say. Ms. F doesn't deserve to start life with a hangover. But before he could think of a polite way, or indeed any way, to voice his concern she was shouting, "Christ!"

He watched, bewildered, as she grabbed the saucepan and began to bang it against the stove.

And then he was in the hall. He had seen her full mouth stretched wide, her eyes glinting, not gestures that had appeared on his poster but, combined with the shouting, fairly unequivocal. In the living room he bent to tend the fire, fighting the desire to climb out of the window and never come back. The first flare of the firelighter had died down and the coals were glowing dully when he heard her footsteps. Fourteen steps carried her into his presence.

"Sorry. I got a little carried away."

He could feel her standing behind him. Don't touch me, he thought.

Do.

"I take my cooking seriously," she said, "even when it is just tins. What makes you angry?"

You drinking beer, Emmanuel being a wanker, my life. Using the tongs, he moved a knob of coal an inch to the right, an inch to the left.

"If I promise to be quiet will you come back and keep me company?"

She walked away, not waiting for an answer, and he thought ofall the tiny motions, the vertebrae sliding against each other, the hip joints swiveling in their sockets, the tarsals and metatarsals flexing and straightening, that make up departure. Yet the most essential motion, the one that couldn't be named or diagrammed, was what spilled a mood into a room. How he knew, with absolute certainty, that she wasn't taking his answer for granted, in either direction, but leaving him alone to figure it out.

Follow, said the fire, and he did.

As he sat back down at the kitchen table, she was peering into the oven. "Is there a reason," she said, directing her words to the lasagna, "for upstairs to be plunged in Stygian gloom?"

He told her about the five lightbulbs of the day before.

"Interesting." She closed the oven door and turned to face him. "I'm usually all right with appliances, but I can't wear a watch for more than a few days before it goes haywire. It's happened four times now."

"Why?" he said, fascinated.

She moved her shoulders up and down. "Who knows? The watchmaker I went to had some mad theory about personal electricity."

They ate off a card table in front of the fire in the freshly papered room. In the light of the candles the ladder cast a hangman's shadow and the pile of furniture loomed. They talked about computers, and whether a person could ever really disappear, and if life was better in Papua, New Guinea. She told a story about her grandfather, who had fought in the First World War and come home to start a railway. As she finished, the phone began to ring in the kitchen and upstairs. They both sat silently until it stopped. At last she spoke about herself but almost, Zeke noticed, as if she were talking about another person. Well, that was something he understood. He often felt as if the events in his life, the things people claimed he'd said and done, were really part of a stranger's story.

"Once, years ago, I had a friend called Marian. She was the opposite of me: tiny, ferocious, funny, incredibly well-organized.We shared an office at my first real job, and four or five nights a week after work we'd go out for a drink. We couldn't get enough of each other's company."

But when she'd been promoted and Marian hadn't their friendship had dwindled. "She would phone and write, but I was always too busy to get together. We'd meet every two or three months. Then one night she phoned around eleven. She said she had the flu. She kept talking about a cat she'd had as a child. 'I'm worried about Pushkin,' she kept saying. 'I'm worried I forgot to feed him.' I promised to come round first thing in the morning. When I got there at nine-thirty, the ambulance was already parked outside."

He watched her lips, her eyes, her cheeks, the muscles of her throat and forehead, and fewer and fewer of her words reached him. But when her story was done, the candles guttering, the fire dying, her face wore an expression he understood. He reached across the table and took her hand in his. "You did what you could. You don't expect people to die of the flu, not young healthy people." As he squeezed her palm against his own, her face changed, the light in her eyes leaping and fading. Had he been too bold? No, the candles were the culprits. Together they snuffed the flames.

She led him up the stairs. "Help me," she said, presenting the coveralls. Soon she was naked, ample and unabashed. Can this be happening, Zeke thought. Then she was pulling back the covers and he was lost.

 

 

When he found himself again, minutes or hours later, basking in the warmth of her proximity, he began to talk about his clocks. "I buy them from jumble sales and junk shops and repair them. I have nine up and ticking, though two are still erratic."

"Do you know about the clock in Prague, in the Old Town Square?"

"Tell me."

A famous clockmaker had made it for the king. When it was finished and everyone had agreed it was a masterpiece, the king ordered his soldiers to blind the clockmaker so that his clock could never be surpassed. For years the blind man lived on the king's charity in a cottage below the castle. At last, on his deathbed, he asked to be carried into the presence of his masterpiece. He passed his hands over the mechanism, and the clock was silent for two hundred years.

"You mean"—Zeke stared up into the darkness—"he did something to the springs?"

"I suppose."

"But how could he bear to?"

She kissed his shoulder. "Revenge," she said. "How else can we rewrite the past?"

He kissed her back. "I can't answer that right now, but I will eventually."

As her breathing grew louder and slower, he felt his anxieties gathering. He tried to calm himself by counting the parts of their bodies that were touching, the parts he still had to touch. He counted her breaths, his own, the cars passing in the street outside until at last he realized the situation was hopeless. "I have to go home," he said.

"Must you?"

No, he thought, not if you'll talk to me all night long in that drowsy voice. "I'm sorry. It's not you. I just can't handle strange houses, strange beds." He touched her cheek. "But I can learn."

 

 

The next morning Zeke knocked only once before setting aside the fried-egg sandwiches—he'd chosen brown bread in an effort to offset last night's beer—and sliding the blade of his penknife under the catch of the side window. He left the bag of sandwiches on the kitchen table and climbed the stairs, hoping to find her still in bed, warm and sleepy, hoping to slip in beside her. And thistime, he thought, however stupid, however embarrassing, he would ask her name.

The bed was unmade, empty and cold to the touch, the suitcases gone. At the foot of the bed the rug was rolled up, and spread-eagled on the bare wooden boards lay the coveralls, neatly buttoned, arms and legs stretched wide, like an empty person. Only when he knelt to pick them up did Zeke discover the three-inch nails that skewered the collar, pinned the cuffs and ankles to the floor.

BANISHING VERONA. Copyright © 2004 by Margot Livesey. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions from the Publisher

1. What makes Verona flee after the first night she spends with Zeke? Why does she nail her clothes to the floor? How does Zeke understand this gesture?

2. Zeke often feels ill at ease with other people yet in less than forty-eight hours he falls in love with Verona. Why does he respond to her so strongly? Verona is seven months pregnant and the host of a radio show. What attracts her to a man who paints houses for a living and can't tell jokes?

3. How does Zeke function in the world? Why is restoring antique clocks the perfect hobby for him and why does he think that the clocks amplify his spirit? Zeke tells a nurse that his feelings stay constant as cathedrals. (p.34) Is this true? How does he cope with the fact that other people are less reliable? What caused his breakdown?

4. One of Henry's teachers claims that he was born without a conscience but Henry insists that he does have a conscience, he just ignores it. What sort of a man is Henry? How does he rationalize what he does with his grandfather's will? Verona says she and Henry share the same corrupt moral gene. (p.200) Do you agree? Why does Verona feel such a sense of responsibility to Henry when he clearly thinks only about himself?

5. Verona, Zeke and Toby each earn their living doing something they would probably do even if they weren't paid. How is Henry's attitude to money different? How does this affect his relationship with his sister, his best friend and the woman he hopes to marry?

6. After Verona loses her temper when she burns the carrots, she asks Zeke what makes him angry-what does? On p. 186 Verona says that it is easier to be furious than to acknowledge what the fury conceals. How does this illuminate her approach to life so far?

7. Zeke believes that his mother regards him as "broken beyond fixing." Is this really how Gwen sees him? To what extent does her behavior exacerbate his difficulties? What is the nature of Zeke's disorder? Does the novel suggest that his difficulties also have their rewards?

8. Zeke is described as looking like a Raphael angel and Henry is referred to as beautiful. How do these two very different men relate to their appearance? What else do they have in common that attracts Verona to Zeke?

9. What makes Zeke decide to tell his father about his mother's infidelity? Was this the right choice? What are Zeke's responsibilities towards his parents?

10. Gwen puts Zeke in the middle of her relationship to Maurice, and makes him feel guilty about not working in the grocery store. What are the consequences of her manipulation?

11. Jill and Zeke both feel out of place in America. Would they have become friends if they had met in London? What do they have in common besides being visitors to a foreign country?

12. On p. 317 Verona observes that she is not trying to find Zeke literally, but rather the part of him that cares for her. Why does she repeatedly fail to contact Zeke when she is in America?

13. Near the end of the novel Verona tells Zeke about a princess who is immune to gravity except when she swims in the palace lake. What does Verona hope to suggest by telling this story?

14. What does the title Banishing Verona refer to? What does Zeke mean at the end of the novel when he says that he'll 'try'? Is there a future for Zeke and Verona?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 8, 2010

    A man with Asperger's syndrom, a mysterious woman--a great read!

    The explanations of Asperger's syndrome (often described as high-level autism) are very insightful, without in any way interrupting the plot of this engrossing novel. Will Zeke be able to find Verona, whose last name he doesn't know, whose appearance he has trouble describing (because of his Asperger's), and who is running away from some kind of trouble? Livesey is great at sketching the foibles of her minor characters as well as making the main actors believable.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2008

    a shot in the dark that I'm glad I took

    I hadn't heard or read anything about this book, but was drawn to it's cover, read the summary, and decided to try it out. I'm so glad I did. This novel is beautifully written, full of human imperfection and sincerity. I don't usually like mystery type novels, but this one was worth it. Just incredible- one of the first really well-crafted, well-written, deeply thought-out contemporary novels I've read in a long time. Beautiful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 18, 2005

    a disappointment

    After reading rave reviews about this book, I thought that it would be worth my time to read it. I was really wrong. The story was really boring and I had a hard time trying to stay with it. I didn't like the way Verona treated Zeke because of her stupid, money obsessed brother. This book isn't worht your time at all.

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