The Missing World

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Following the acclaimed Criminals comes a spellbinding new novel that confirms Margot Livesey's place "right up there," as Liz Smith wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "in the realm of P. D. James and the esteemed Patricia Highsmith."

What if -- by stroke of fortune -- you could start afresh, could wipe away that catastrophic blunder in your past? And to what lengths would you go to establish that in fact you'd done nothing wrong at all? After an accident robs Hazel of three ...

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The Missing World

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Following the acclaimed Criminals comes a spellbinding new novel that confirms Margot Livesey's place "right up there," as Liz Smith wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "in the realm of P. D. James and the esteemed Patricia Highsmith."

What if -- by stroke of fortune -- you could start afresh, could wipe away that catastrophic blunder in your past? And to what lengths would you go to establish that in fact you'd done nothing wrong at all? After an accident robs Hazel of three years' worth of memory, just such an opportunity is granted to Jonathan, undone by his betrayal of this woman, whom he professes to love above all. While he begins to rewrite their history, two other misfits -- an American sojourner and a luckless English actress -- knock about London, each of them haunted by indelible memories they would much rather forget. Eventually their hopes of redemption draw them toward Jonathan's house, where Hazel has become a virtual prisoner ... Replete with compelling characters and extravagantly plotted, The Missing World weaves together these separate quests for love and truth in a manner both thrilling and, ultimately, revealing about our imperfect lives.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
What Really Happens

The hardest sort of student short stories to discuss in class workshops are those that are adept from sentence to sentence but hopelessly fouled either by plot contrivance (say, a character's convenient case of amnesia) or by the author's desire to editorialize about some issue or idea (a colleague of mine calls these exemplum-style stories "debate-club topics made flesh"). For years, I believed that, despite all the pretty sentences, such stories are too ill-conceived to be salvageable. I'd try to be diplomatic, which is hard when a voice in your head keeps telling you that if you told the truth you'd say merely, "Junk this and write something else."

Finally, after nearly 20 years, I bumbled upon something really useful to say.

"What would really happen in a situation like this?" I heard myself blurt one day in class. "Not what happens here. Not any hackneyed plot contrivance that you feel like you've seen a zillion times on TV. What would really happen to recognizable human beings thrown into such an unlikely bind?"

Such material doesn't have to be ceded entirely to editorial writers or to genre fiction's game board-piece character development. Be vigilant in stamping out the mildest cliché. Dig more deeply into the characters. Do research. Learn stuff, then don't strain to show the reader what you know. Deliver the news. Tell a convincing story.

A shorthand way to explain this: read the exquisitely designed novels of Margot Livesey.

Homework concerns conflicts within a stepfamily (without ever seeming akin to the Brady Bunch). Criminals concerns a baby abandoned in a bus station and the consequent complications of custody and blackmail (without ever sinking remotely close to the antic-crime-novel-featuring-dumb-bad-guys genre). The Missing World, just published, concerns a woman who is hit by a car and loses all memory of the last three years of her life (without ever seeming like a straight-to-video movie starring Brat Pack or SNL alumni).

"I try to write novels that make plot the muscle of the apparatus," says the Scottish-born Livesey from her home in Boston. "That doesn't mean, at all, that character development is secondary, just that—in the way all those great 19th-century novels do—I want to use a strong plot to get to a different, deeper level."

With each book, she says, she asked herself this question: "What would someone like myself, or the sort of person I know, do in quite extreme circumstances?"

The result has been books that get compared to those both of mystery writers (including P. D. James and the inestimable Patricia Highsmith) and of the award-magnet literary fiction writers like Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch, and Penelope Fitzgerald.

When Criminals came out, and people started calling it a "thriller," even occasionally shelving it among crime novels, Livesey says she was "shocked," but ultimately pleased. "The word 'thriller,'" she speculates, "has become shorthand for 'an entertaining, readable book.'"

When people (or at least reviewers for The New York Times and The New Yorker) called her new novel The Missing World a comedy, Livesey was shocked again.

"Perhaps more taken aback than shocked," she says. "'Comedy' is not the first word that I would use to describe the book. But I do mean it to be witty, and I'm pleased people are responding to that. There are certainly parts of it that I mean to be funny."

Her success with what one critic called "issues-related" material might be flattering, Livesey says, but it's not really what it feels to her like she's doing. "For me, it just feels like watching certain things surface in the culture."

What surfaced to inspire The Missing World, Livesey says, was our current preoccupation with memory: memory loss, recovered memory syndrome, millennial nostalgia, research into Alzheimer's disease, Tourette's syndrome, and even publishing's late memoir craze. The book's acknowledgments cite by name eight books on the subjects of memory, amnesia, and the human brain.

"But the first spark of the novel—and this is embarrassing to admit," she admits, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial level, "it must have been in a waiting room—came from an article in People magazine."

The article was about a man whose fiancée was injured in a car wreck and had lost much of her memory of recent events. He decided that, rather than just go ahead with their wedding plans, he should instead court and woo her all over again. (Now you know why this was in People.)

Not long after Livesey read that, a similar thing happened to distant acquaintances of hers. The wife lost her memory and the husband became the custodian of the couple's past, which, Livesey says, "had been a very stormy one."

The main plot of The Missing World is about an insurance adjuster named Jonathan (a deftly drawn monster of the mundane sort that probably lives or works alongside you) who takes advantage of his journalist ex-girlfriend Hazel's accident and consequent memory loss to try to insinuate himself back into her life and undo what he (disingenuously, it turns out) believes to be the biggest mistake of his life, which is turning down the marriage proposal she extended on a February 29th four years earlier.

The novel's other main characters—an expatriate African-American roofer named Freddie, a grimly out-of-work actress named Charlotte, a drab and ruthlessly responsible nurse (also Charlotte's sister) named Bernadette, and Hazel's best friend Maud—all act as foils to one another, revolving around the novel's central questions of amnesia and memory. But Livesey is so subtle, so sly, and such a good storyteller, that this only seems obvious at the end of the book.

"This was all also a covert way of writing about being an expatriate," Livesey says, "which, after all, is another sort of being cut off from memories of one's past."

"One of the peculiar things about America is that so many people are expatriates in their own country. In Britain, something like three quarters of the population still lives within 20 minutes of their parents. I think in this particular way I may have written a very American book, one that happens to be set in North London."

It's a telling example of Livesey's subtlety that Freddie, the novel's one expat character, is in some ways her total opposite (male, black, an American in Great Britain, a physical laborer) and yet in others is perhaps the most autobiographical character in the book: Someone geographically and perhaps dispositionally like herself, a recognizable human being who finds himself in an extreme situation and, like all the other principal characters in The Missing World, convinces you that what in lesser hands might be a plot conceit is, from Livesey, the news—what would really happen.

Mark Winegardner

Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including, most recently, the novel The Veracruz Blues.

Library Journal
When Hazel Ransome, a freelance journalist, is hit by a car and loses her memory of the past three years, her ex-lover Jonathan seizes the opportunity to gain a second chance with her. As Hazel convalesces in the London home they shared for four years, Jonathan, an insurance claims adjuster and bee-keeper, tries desperately to keep her from discovering the mistake he made that caused her to leave him the previous year. When her best friend, Maud, fails to help her piece together the events of her recent past, Hazel finds unlikely allies in two fellow Londoners who are struggling to keep their own too-vivid memories from overwhelming them. Livesey (Criminals), a native of Scotland, spins a suspenseful tale full of bright, believable characters. Recommended for all fiction collections.--Jane la Plante, Minot State Univ. Lib., ND Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
A catchy what-if idea lies at the heart of "The Missing World," an enthralling new novel by Margot Livesey, who, to judge from her previous novels, "Homework" and "Criminals," seems fascinated by the narrow borders dividing madness from sanity, goodness from evil...Beneath all the comic reaching out is the failure to connect in this intricately patterned novel that makes you feel as well as think.
The New York Times
Michael Upchurch
...this is intelligent fiction, vigorous both in its observation of human foible and in its speculation on the role that memory plays in underwriting our sense of choice and direction in our lives. ''Only forgetfulness sets us free.'' Well, perhaps. But it's a freedom that, like any ignorance, can lead one straight into a trap, as Livesey so gamely demonstrates here.
The New York Times Book Review
The New Yorker
...darkly humorous...Shakespearean comedy with Murdochian overtones.
From the Publisher
"An enthralling novel . . . that makes you feel as well as think."—The New York Times

"Delicate and terrifying . . . a modern-day Rebecca."—The Boston Globe

"The sort of old-fashioned tale that Maugham would have admired—its thrills are understated, delicious, and not to be missed. . . . [Livesey's] style recalls the early, best Hitchcock, as evil unfolds in the most commonplace of circumstances."—The Washington Post Book World

"A page-turner: suspenseful, crisp, beautifully crafted . . . Livesey is a riveting storyteller as masterful as Patricia Highsmith or Ruth Rendell."—The San Diego Union-Tribune

"Darkly humorous . . . a Shakespearean comedy with Murdochian overtones."—The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780099284352
  • Publisher: Random House of Canada, Limited
  • Publication date: 4/24/2001
  • Pages: 496

Meet the Author

Margot Livesey was born in Scotland, and currently resides in Boston, Massachusetts, where she is a writer in residence at Emerson College.


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

The outside door was open. Rushing up the stairs, he pictured Hazel unconscious on the floor, clutching the phone. He would carry her into the bedroom and hold a cool cloth to her forehead until she opened her eyes and begged him to lie down beside her. As soon as he unlocked the door of her flat, Jonathan knew this was the easy version. Sounds he could not parse into sense came from the living-room. "Hello," he said, not loud enough to be heard.

He stopped to pick up the phone, beeping on the hall floor, and went slowly into the living-room. Hazel was lurching away from him across the carpet, as if her legs were of different lengths or different substances, one wax, one lead. A table lamp, directly in her passage, fell to the floor. She was wearing a black pullover and, surprisingly, a blue skirt he had given her.

"Hazel," he said.

She reached the wall but still she did not stop. She kept walking until she was pressed right up against it, her toes nudging the skirting board, her thighs moving in a parody of an exercise machine. She raised her hands and began to claw at the plaster, her fingers scraping the magnolia paint, over and over.

When at last she turned around, he would not have recognised her. The whole shape of her face had changed. Her cheeks were puffy; her eyes, always so large and luminous, were rolling back in their sockets; saliva frothed her lips, and even her jaw seemed to undulate oddly. Only her fine, feathery hair was the same. "Barasingha," she said in an unnaturally deep voice.

Jonathan fled. In the hall he seized the phone and dialled Emergency.

"Which service do you require: police, fire, orambulance?"

"Ambulance," he shouted. And then he was speaking to a calm-voiced woman. Next to the phone was a bookcase, and as he recited the address he caught sight of the faded binding of Ovid's Metamorphoses, his second gift to her, squeezed between The Poems of Rumi and A Guide to Seashore Birds; at least she hadn't thrown it away.

"How long will it be?" he asked, but the operator was gone.

At the prospect of returning to the living-room, dread washed over him. Whoever was staggering back and forth, that person, that creature, was not Hazel. Barasingha? It sounded exotic: a small monkey, perhaps, or a complicated curry. He touched the spine of Metamorphoses, the gold lettering almost gone.

"Anything," he vowed, "I'll do anything to get her back again." His fingertips came away flecked with gold.

Hazel had sunk to her knees and was scrabbling at the wall, a desperate prisoner. Cautiously he knelt beside her and reached his arms around her, then almost let go. Deep, uneven zigzags were leaping through her, not like the vibrations of cold or grief but rather as if she were plugged into some wayward generator. He tightened his grip against the shocks. She continued to claw the paint. "Hazel," he pleaded, "stop it. Please, stop!"

Like the beginning of an answer came the faint seesawing of a siren

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First Chapter

Chapter One

They were quarrelling on the phone when it happened, although anyone overhearing them might easily have failed to detect the fury that lay behind their pragmatic sentences. "I don't see why you need to bother Mrs. Craig," Hazel said, "about a leak in your study." "But my hunch," said Jonathan, "is that the water's getting in through her roof as well as ours. No use fixing one without the other." He was standing beside the window, tugging at the dusty leaves of the indomitable cheese plant. Since Hazel's flight the other plants had, one by one, succumbed to his lack of care and now sat, brown and desiccated, on windowsills and tables. This monster, however, almost as tall as he was with its perforated leaves and hairy roots groping from the lower stems, had not merely survived his abuse but positively thrived. In the midst of his struggle with Hazel, he found time to apostrophise his old enemy. Die, you bugger, he thought, and shredded a leaf. The brittle green flakes were still falling when Hazel's steady speech swerved, slewed across several lanes, hesitated at the guardrail, and plunged off into a dark field. "Elephants," she whispered. "Caracals." "Hazel, is something wrong? Hazel?" The receiver emitted a gurgling sound, then a thud. Jonathan held it away from him, glaring at the rows of holes, as if the machine itself might be responsible for this aberration. But the black plastic was mute. He dropped the phone, grabbed a jacket from the stand in the hall, his keys from the table, and ran. Miraculously, his beleaguered company Saab started on the first attempt. Only as he pulled away from the kerb did he realise he could see nothing; the windscreen was dark with snow. He climbed out again to wipe it clear with his bare hands. The pillowed streets, rare in North London, had served as the pretext for his phone call. "Look at the snow," he had exclaimed, so exhilarated by the downy, festive weather that, briefly, he had forgotten he and Hazel were no longer looking at anything together. He had felt like an idiot when she replied, in a peculiarly quiet voice, that she'd had an accident on the way home. A car, unable to stop, had knocked her down in a zebra crossing. "Oh, my god," he said. "Are you all right?" "I think so. It wasn't going very fast. I just feel . . ." Her breath whistled into the phone. ". . . a little wobbly." He offered to take her to the doctor, the hospital, but she said no, she'd have an early night; time enough to seek help if she still felt out of sorts in the morning. Then, eager to prolong the conversation, Jonathan had mentioned that he'd finally called the roofer about the damp patch in the ceiling and his belief that it was partly the fault of the next-door neighbour, who let everything go to wrack and ruin, and so they had drifted out of the calm waters of weather and health onto a familiar reef: his attitude towards Mrs. Craig. Now Jonathan drove heedlessly, swearing at red lights. The deep-seated vexation, at Hazel, at himself, at the cheese plant, which a few minutes earlier had possessed him utterly, was gone. This is an emergency, he told himself; unbidden, the Latin emergere, to rise up, came to him. He was rising up to meet . . . he didn't know exactly what. Was Hazel under attack from someone? Some thing? He couldn't imagine what had produced those odd words -- caracals, for christ's sake -- or that gurgling. He turned off the Holloway Road. The car was still shimmying when, from between the parked cars on his left, a dark shape pelted into the street. Dog? Cat? A tiny interval existed during which Jonathan could have nudged the steering wheel or applied the brake. He did neither. The wheel jumped, and he was past it, whatever it was. The rearview mirror showed only the lights of other cars falling farther and farther behind as he hurtled down Camden Road. He leaned on the horn and overtook a taxi. Pausing for a red light, he had visions of scaling a drainpipe to Hazel's second-floor flat, breaking down the door, and immediately doubted his own capacities; that kind of thing was much harder than it looked in films. Perhaps one of her neighbours had a key? Then it came to him: he himself had a set. He had acquired them in a manner he could scarcely bear to consider, the complete opposite of that happy occasion four years ago when he'd given her the keys to his house. They were in a restaurant when he handed her the envelope. Hazel had peered at it, held it up to the light, and, finally, as the waiter put bowls of pasta before them, torn it open. At the sight of the Yale and mortice, still glinting from the locksmith's, her eyes widened. Shall we use them, she whispered. He had hesitated only a moment before taking twenty pounds out of his wallet and hurrying her home to bed. But last autumn, in the looking-glass world of separation, he'd agreed to pick up a light fixture for her flat -- weeks of argument had reduced him to stony helpfulness -- and she had asked if he could get some keys cut. For Maud, she explained. No problem, he'd said, dumbfounded once again at how poorly she understood his feelings. For weeks he carried the extra set of keys in his pocket. Just knowing he had access to Hazel, that she couldn't keep him out even if she wanted to, made him feel better. Then one night, several Scotches to the wind, he ended up pacing her street and got as far as opening the outside door. After that, not trusting himself with such temptation, he put the keys in the glove compartment of the car and did his best to forget them. In the one-way system of Kentish Town, afraid of a wrong turn, he slowed down. During the months before Hazel moved out, he had twice lost his way walking to the tube station and once, in a moment of fiercely lit, jostling panic, been unable to find his office. But now the same irradiating urgency that made him careless of the dark animal's fate guided him through these unfamiliar streets towards Hazel's shabby terrace. Skidding slightly, he double-parked and extricated the hateful keys.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2008

    Manipulation of the Perfect World, by CCCarney

    Manipulation of the Perfect World<BR/><BR/>The art of forgetting can be a gift and a burden. Margot Livesey's, The Missing World is exactly that. She addresses the good of amnesia and can link it to the bad. She takes two peoples lives and turns them upside down to where they are being manipulated.<BR/>Jonathan, a simple man whom is desperate to get back together with Hazel, whom is a sweet gentle minded person, walks in on her having seizures. He rushes her to the hospital where she is unconscious for over two weeks. When she finally comes to, Hazel can not remember anything from the past three years. Thus she forgets the fact that Jonathan had betrayed her. Seeking this as an opportunity to get back with Hazel, Jonathan convinces Hazels family to let her live with him again. They are reluctant and allow this.<BR/>With the plot steaming up as Hazel lives not knowing, Livesey adds a few other characters. You have Charlotte who is a distressed actress trying to get by, helping Hazel remember the past acting she used to do. Freddie, an African-American that is sent to fix Jonathans roof, whom thinks of Hazel as "a princess in a tower" and he must save her. The final character she throws in to make the plots dark corners even more suspenseful, is Mr. Early. These characters add humor and constent suspense for they are always trying to save Hazel from Jonathan.<BR/>Jonathan starts to realize that things are not going quite as he had planed and becomes very edgy with anyone whom poses a threat to his plan of keeping Hazel. Livesey throws another turn when she allows the reader to know how Hazel is starting to see Jonathan's true colors and starts to dig up what her seizure has made her not remember.<BR/>The Missing World, by Margot Livesey has some very interesting twist and turns. You have people constantly breathing down each others necks and great comic relief. I would recommend this book to anyone that wants to find out if "forgetfulness sets us free."

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 10, 2009

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