"Eva Moves the Furniture" by Margot Livesey

Two spirits guide a motherless girl through her life. Are they a blessing or a curse?

Published December 7, 2001 12:43AM (EST)

As trim and fresh as a sprig of heather, "Eva Moves the Furniture" makes for an unlikely ghost story. It tells the story of Eva McEwan's relatively quiet life, from her childhood in a small country town in Scotland in the 1920s and '30s, to a stint as a nurse in Glasgow during World War II, a failed romance with a charismatic Jewish surgeon and finally marriage and motherhood with a schoolteacher in the Highlands. What's unusual about Eva's path, though, is that it's shaped by forces she doesn't quite understand: a pair of "companions," a woman and a little girl, who keep her company but who also interfere with her romantic and career plans; invisible hands that come to her rescue in moments of physical peril; and the moving furniture of the title. No one else can see the companions, and the spirits make it clear that they don't want Eva to ask too many questions or talk about them with other people.

Are they a blessing or a curse? To Eva, whose mother died when she was born, they're a little of both. They ease her childhood loneliness, but they also burden her with a secret that makes her feel odd and cut off from the people around her. The question of the spirits' intentions -- along with the deeper question of whether they exist at all or are, as her doctor lover insists, "a common childhood fantasy" -- provides the novel's mild narrative tension.

However, despite a handful of mysteries to be solved here, this isn't the sort of book you read for the story. Instead, its charm lies in the melting grace of Livesey's writing and the effortless way she creates the mood and sensations of a specific, beloved world. The Scottish countryside where Eva grows up is a place of "foaming hawthorn hedges and woods of beech, chestnut and birch," where the motherless little girl grows up gathering eggs and playing house under a red-currant bush, passing acorn tea-cups to her supernatural friends. A few events from the larger world -- the abdication of Edward VIII, the advent of radio -- send tiny ripples through the cozy life Eva shares with her father and her aunt, but it's mostly Eva's tentative forays into adulthood that disturb the family's serenity.

By the time Eva makes her way to the Glasgow infirmary where she lands her first real job, it's clear the companions are directing her fate in some way, but it's not until the novel's close that their true motives emerge. And yet, enigmatic as they are, the influence of Eva's spirits isn't that different from that of the web of yearnings and attachments that pulls everybody's life in one direction or another. Shall she marry the dashing Samuel Rosenblum and emigrate with him to faraway Canada? Or should she take a job closer to home, near the isolated country house where her mother grew up? The decisions she makes could be the result of otherworldly influence, or they could simply arise from her most fundamental, if sometimes hidden, desires.

Eva still lives in a world where a midwife can look out the window, count six magpies in a tree and recognize this as an omen of death, a world that still retains some of the purity of a ballad. It's also a world that has utterly vanished; the brief access to it that Livesey offers us is comforting, if ever so slightly bittersweet. That makes "Eva Moves the Furniture" a bit like a ghost itself, certainly a companion and without question very welcome indeed.

Next pick: A controversial Nobel laureate scrutinizes the absurdities of race and class.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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