Margot Livesey’s new book, Mercury, is a story of love and obsession—but not in the way you’d expect. Don, a Scottish optometrist living in suburban Boston, is too immersed in mourning his father’s recent death from Parkinson’s to notice that his wife Viv has utterly fallen for Mercury, a new horse at the riding stables she manages. Viv’s obsession with Mercury spins out of control, leading to an act of violence that nobody could have predicted. Mercury is Livesey at her best: a subtle investigation of a family coming apart, of secrets and separateness, of blindness and blinkered sight.
I think we all know someone who is besotted with horses. Are you that person?
Between the ages of 9 and 14, yes. I rode the Highland ponies at the nearby farm as often as I could and read endless books about girls and gymkhanas. Nowadays I seldom ride but I do remain fascinated by the world of horses. Or should I say the worlds of horses. There’s a big difference between a professional riding stables, where most of the horses are being trained to compete, and the kind of stables Viv and her friend Claudia run.
What kind of research did you do for this book?
A friend let me accompany her to the stables where she rode. I would follow her around, observe her lessons, visit the horses and talk to the other riders and the people who worked in the barns. And then, being a writer, I also read omnivorously. Three books that were particularly helpful were Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet, Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven and Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. Each gave me wonderful insights into horses and into the relations between horses and humans.
I also spent a good deal of time questioning my optometrist, talking to blind people and reading books about vision and blindness. I read several illuminating memoirs by men who had gone blind as adults; each recorded a long period of passionate denial when, although the author could see less and less, he was continuing to act like a sighted person—bicycling, going to films, carelessly crossing roads. Eventually each had to admit his failing vision and learn how to be blind.
Do you think there was a moment when Don could have intervened, before Viv’s feelings for Mercury went from interest to obsession?
I find that line between interest, which seems like a good thing, and obsession, which seems questionable, fascinating. I am not sure if Donald could have intervened—Mercury is a fantastic athlete, a fantastic opportunity—but that he is oblivious to Viv's unhappiness, to her feeling of being stuck, does help to propel her across that line.
I find that line between interest, which seems like a good thing, and obsession, which seems questionable, fascinating.
This is your first book to take place completely in the United States. Was that something you had planned to do?
Yes. I do spend a lot of time here and I did want to write a novel set here, to make use of the New England landscape. Although a version of the plot could take place in Britain, the actual details, to my mind, could only happen in the States.
As a novel, Mercury is very open-ended. Have you thought about what happens to the characters after the novel ends?
I have, and I hope the reader will too.
As a married person, I found this novel very unsettling. There is a mystery here, but it’s the mystery of ever really knowing another person. As a novelist, how do you decide what to show and what to keep secret?
I think my husband found the novel unsettling too. For me one of the questions that propels the novel is what happens in a long relationship when one person changes their opinions, their worldview if you will, and the other doesn’t. I was very interested in exploring how this change can become a kind of infidelity. As a novelist, I wanted to suggest how just keeping something secret can turn an innocent activity—spending more time training Mercury—into something more toxic. Both Viv and Donald are keeping secrets not just from each other but from themselves. I tried to hint at some of those secrets but also to allow the characters, like the people around us, a certain amount of mystery.
For me one of the questions that propels the novel is what happens in a long relationship when one person changes their opinions, their worldview, if you will, and the other doesn’t.
Viv had success as a hedge fund manager, and yet the incident with her previous horse was still motivating her decades later. Do you think we all have those kinds of losses that, unresolved, can direct our actions?
I hesitate to make a general claim but I’ve gradually come to realize that the loss of my mother—she died when I was 2 and a half—has played a much larger role in my adult life than I realized. Many people, I suspect, have a sense of understanding some aspect of their own behavior, or motivation, only long after the fact.
Gun control is a very timely topic. Did your own feelings about firearm laws change at all as you were writing the book?
No, in that I remain convinced that better gun control would save many lives. Yes, in that I did get to know people who oppose new legislation. For the most part there’s a huge gap between the two sides: people who support new laws and those who oppose them. Visiting gun shops, talking to gun owners, gave me new insight into that world and the pleasures of shooting for sport, and for food. While I met no one who openly supported assault weapons, several of the people I spoke to did seem to fear that any restrictions on guns would lead to a total ban.
What does it bring to the novel to have Viv tell her side of the story?
If we saw Viv only from the outside, from Donald’s point of view, we wouldn’t understand the depths of her feelings—how, despite friends, work, a husband and children, her life feels over until Mercury arrives. And how her fears for him, which seem to her completly justified, lead her to take first one step and then the next to protect him.
This was a very intense read and I’m sure equally demanding to write. What did you do for pleasure when it was over?
I visited my family in Scotland and went to France with my husband. We spent a lovely week in Sancerre, a medieval town in the Loire valley.
What are you working on next?
I am finishing a book of essays about the craft of writing and working on a new novel which is still at the very early stages.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Mercury.