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Byline: Bernadette Murphy Special to the Daily News

``The Missing World''

By Margot Livesey

352 pages, Knopf; $23

At first glance, the main plot of Margot Livesey's third novel comes off sounding like a mawkish soap opera. The central character, Hazel, has left her lover Jonathan and taken her own apartment to be forever rid of him. When she suffers brain trauma as the result of an accident, Jonathan comes to her rescue, calling the ambulance, sitting by her side for five agonizing days as she lies unconscious. He is delighted when she finally emerges, shaken but all right, and fate hands him a golden opportunity: Due to the injury, Hazel has lost the last three years of her memory - the years in which Jonathan destroyed her love through deception - and can only remember the blissful early-love stage with him. Jonathan vows to keep that love unsullied, hiding the truth from Hazel if necessary - because, after all, his love for her is what really counts.

For all it's melodramatic story line, though, the book is far from a soap opera. In ``The Missing World'' Livesey continues to excavate the rich territory she mined in her last novel, ``Criminals'' (1996), by examining the shifting boundaries of personal reality. Digging far below the plot- line surface, Livesey gets to the questions that genuinely disturb: Can you love someone and at the same time, keep that person captive to your own version of events? Are love and obsession synonymous? Set in modern-day London and populated by characters who eventually impact Hazel and Jonathan's life together, ``The Missing World'' uses the amnesia premise to illustrate hard truths of human relations.

The genius of this novel takes place in the character development of Jonathan. From the outset he's seen as a good guy, perhaps misunderstood by Hazel; he's a man who truly wishes the best for her. When the damage to Hazel's brain becomes manifest - she'd been knocked down by a car in a crosswalk earlier that day, and while arguing with Jonathan on the phone that evening, lapses into a seizure - Jonathan heedlessly runs over a small animal in the road en route to her apartment. ``A tiny interval existed during which Jonathan could have nudged the steering wheel or applied the brake,'' Livesey tells us. ``He did neither.'' This early scene, in which his actions seem both understandable and incredibly callous, sets up Jonathan's conduct throughout the rest of the book as he plows through everything he holds dear, blind to the damage he causes, to obtain his one desire: Hazel's restored love.

But it's through the awakening of Hazel as she pieces her life back together and tries to make sense of the missing three years that the reader gets hints of Jonathan as the truly frightening man that Hazel had good reason to leave. To her credit, the author never implies how one should view Jonathan. If anything, Livesey weighs our sympathies to his side and then lets his actions build. As Hazel learns more about her lover and begins to distrust him - not for past actions from which he is ostensibly immune, but for the present ones that can't help but echo the past - so, too, does the reader.

Jonathan's web starts with lies meant to protect himself and his beloved. He doesn't tell Hazel about the apartment she'd been living in at the time of her accident, he influences her parents to go along with the fantasy of their happily-ever-after life; even Hazel's best friend joins in the charade; all, it would seem, for the good of Hazel. But one lie has a way of engendering others, and soon Jonathan becomes increasingly desperate as his `fairy tale of second chances'' threatens to end.

Trying to keep Mrs. Craig, the nosey next-door neighbor from visiting because she might mention some semblance of truth to Hazel, Jonathan exposes the depth of his self-delusion: ``Everything was fine between him and Hazel'' he tells us, ``until something, someone intruded from the outside world; then difficulties sprang up devouring the sweetness between them.'' The fact that nothing had been fine is totally lost on this man who wants the world to behave according to his script, regardless of the consequences. And the consequences keep building. As Jonathan creates a love-inspired prison for Hazel, the degeneracy of his own nature is revealed.

By straddling the elusive line between literary and commercial fiction - the kind that keeps us up reading at night long after the light should have been turned out - the book gives us the best of both worlds.

To be sure, the novel isn't without its flaws. Populating Hazel and Jonathan's world, for example, is a cast of characters that in many ways is only window dressing for the larger scene. There's Charlotte, a down-on-her- luck actress and her uptight sister, Bernadette, the hard-working nurse who tends to Hazel part-time. Freddie Adams is the black expatriate who comes to fix the roof and falls in love with Hazel.

The strangest of all is Mr. Early, another of Freddie's client's. An eccentric who builds fake heads for the film industry, Mr. Early's role seems to be that of confessor for the various minor characters who end up, inexplicably, coming to his house at odd hours to drink tea and tell him their own life stories. These characters add little to the depth and texture of the novel. They do, however, forward the action and perhaps that's all they're meant to do. The character of Hazel, likewise, remains a cipher, lost in what she can't remember. Still, it's Jonathan's story that enthralls, and that story remains strong throughout.

At one point, Charlotte sums up the book's theme with a meditation on a tenet of Santayana philosophy: ``That which we do not remember, we are doomed to repeat.'' ``As far as I'm concerned,'' Charlotte tells us, ``it's the other way around. We repeat what we remember. Only forgetfulness sets us free.'' In this book, neither forgetfulness nor remembering, nor the love of another person, sets anyone free. Far from soap opera platitudes, this concept has the stinging resonance of truth to it.


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Title Annotation:Review; Viewpoint
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Feb 27, 2000

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