Post Road Magazine #14

Eva Moves the Furniture by Margot Livesey

Cynthia Thayer

Reading has been my passion since childhood. I remember turning the pages of my favorite book of all time, Wee Gillis, by Munro Leaf—a story about a boy who learns to play impossibly enormous bagpipes—pretending to read the words, which I had memorized, to my father. It was 1949 and I was five years old. My father, knowing that I couldn’t read yet, feigned astonishment at my miraculous ability. Sometimes I “read” it myself, sometimes my father read it to me.

In high school I was the only student in my class who loved “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I was pulled into the poem by the reality of it all, the wedding guest telling the story, the real ship, the real albatross, and when the fantasy kicked in, I was right there, believing the slithering green snakes and the ragged ghost ship.

A few weeks ago a member of my writing group came to our weekly meeting with a small book by Margot Livesey in his hand. “Here,” he said. “Who wants this?” The title grabbed me immediately, and it could have been about digging worms, for all I cared. Anyone who could write a book entitled Eva Moves the Furniture had to have a good imagination. “I’ll take it,” I said.

The story of Eva McEwen begins in the Scottish lowlands, like Wee Gillis. On the morning of her birth six magpies congregate in the nearby apple tree—“six for a dearth,” a bad omen in Scottish legend. Later that same day her mother’s death leaves Eva in the care of her father and her stodgy Aunt Lily. Livesey leads us through the story, allowing us to have one foot in reality and one in a fantasyland of ghostly companions who watch over her.

I love ghost stories until they, like most, go over the top and I lose my footing in the real world. Eva Moves the Furniture allows me to dabble in the supernatural but makes me believe that I never totally left reality. Now, that’s a feat. Livesey slips in the fantasy gently—a vision of Eva somehow crawling out of her crib and almost tumbling down a flight of stairs as an infant. At the age of six she sees the companions for the first time, an older woman in a white dress with little blue checks, and a girl around fourteen with her pinafore hiked up and dirty, scuffed knees. They speak, give her gifts, help her collect the eggs. Livesey’s ghosts are no eerie apparitions moving spectrally through the air.

I turn the page and think they must be imaginary friends like my own Celery Ann, who encouraged me to run away with her and to remember to bring my toothbrush. As Eva begins to recognize that the woman and the girl are not imaginary friends, I, too, am comfortably drawn into the shadow world of the afterlife, sucked into a belief that these ghosts are real and that their purpose in life—or is it death? —is to guide Eva to do the right thing and to protect her from harm.

The supernatural entwines itself with reality throughout the story, which balances back and forth between the two, hence making both vivid and believable. Don’t we all listen intently to the stories of the woman in white who walks Route 17 or the mysterious ragged-sailed ghost ship that appears on a foggy winter’s night? We make a wish and believe that it might come true. Livesey plays on our love and belief in life after death and the idea that someone is watching over us, keeping us from harm.

The book also reveals its story in allegory, in psychological symbolism, as a struggle within oneself. Eva recognizes that the companions are trying to keep her for themselves but yet yearns for them when they aren’t present. It might be easy to discount the supernatural and just call it an overactive imagination, except for the fact that they do things that others recognize. They throw a stone into the water and Eva’s friend gets soaked. They show Eva where her mother carved her initials in a school desk. We are led to believe that they are real. But then they’re not.

Toward the end of the book Eva laments that the companions have planned her life. Did they bring her and Samuel together? Did they put the stamp on the “Dear Samuel” letter because they wanted someone else to marry her instead? Did they arrange for her to be where Matthew could find her? And what if they change their minds again and take Matthew away? It’s a fear we all have at times, that our life is in the hands of someone greater, or that it’s not.

Margot Livesey knows human nature and aptly, through vivid sense of detail and a gentleness that permeates the book, shows us ourselves. The senses of reality and fantasy blur. Eva’s inner desires are spoken only by the companions, the woman and girl who exist but don’t live.

How are Wee Gillis, “TheRime of the Ancient Mariner,” and Eva Moves the Furniture alike? Wee Gillis had one foot in the lowlands and one foot in the highlands, playing an impossibly huge set of bagpipes so that he might appease both sides of his family. The wedding guest tells a story about real people in a real ship that have a phantasmic experience. Eva has one foot in the soil of Scotland and one foot in the spirit world, trying to make sense out of both.

Livesey’s astonishing story delicately allows us a peek into the otherworld, and we find it familiar. Her detail and avoidance of stock and clichéd descriptions result in a believable, bittersweet story of childhood loneliness, acceptance, and love. Perhaps it will replace my beloved Wee Gillis as a favorite.

 

Cynthia Thayer is the author of three novels, A Certain Slant of Light, Strong for Potatoes, and most recently, A Brief Lunacy, from Algonquin Books. She also writes for Northern New England Journey, AAA. She teaches fiction writing with Turnstone Writers Workshop and Schoodic Arts for All. She and her husband, Bill, live on an organic farm in Gouldsboro, on the Schoodic Peninsula, in Maine.

 

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