Mystic Manchester

Inheritance by Livi Michael (Viking, £10.99, 216pp)
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The Independent Culture

There is a moment in Livi Michael's new novel when its heroine, Louise, encounters an old photograph of a crowded Manchester street scene. "There is an omnibus, and a man on a bike, a woman pushing a pram... a horse-drawn carriage, and a man in a bowler hat stepping on to it, that moment taken out of his life for ever." Reflecting that all those people, each absorbed in a living story, are now dead, Louise is struck with wonder.

The wonder is compounded for the reader because we know what Louise does not: that the young woman inspecting a flower stall in the picture is her own Great-Aunt Martha, the elusive lost link in the family tree she is avidly researching. We know that because, several pages earlier, we have been privileged to walk with Martha through that very scene, privy to her every thought.

A mystical thread runs through all of Livi Michael's work. Deep matters of time and consciousness concern her. Gritty social realism prevails in her previous novels, but despite all that soulless modernity can throw at them, her characters lie in the gutter, gazing at the stars. Sometimes literally.

Inheritance widens and deepens that perspective. An eternal present prevails, embracing through split narrative the stories of Louise and Martha. Louise is the most upbeat of Michael's heroines to date, a northern girl who has gone south, lost her accent and become a fashion buyer.

In the wake of a personal tragedy, she returns to the small moorland town in which she grew up, rents a cottage next door to the redoubtable Mary, who "looks like Charles Laughton in a pinny and sagging tights", and engages herself in sorting through her dead mother's belongings.

Thus begins the quest for Martha, whose story comes to us piecemeal via the lovingly researched vignettes of bygone Lancashire life, some told in a dense vernacular for which a glossary is provided. As one familiar with the dialect, I did not find it too onerous, though I imagine some might get a little dinged and flited with endlessly having to flick to the back of the book for a translation.

Martha's story tells of her life married to a bookseller, who has taken her from the moors she loved to the smoky chaos of Manchester, with its clamorous factories and swarming alleys. Undercut with a brooding sense of dread and hints of the paranormal, this story is our link to a buried Victorian murder mystery revolving round the appalling iniquities of the workhouse, the brooding ruin of which still dominates the town.

Michael's characters are fully rounded and believable. Even the men, who in previous books have tended towards the one-dimensional, are granted complexity, and she is at pains to point out that "according to how I tell it, each person is either victim or oppressor".

What rings most true is the fine evocation of place, the little shabby towns and the heartless sprawl of pollution, the "great brown landscape, unending as a lament". That, and the underlying conviction that a certain fierce beauty underlies all the pain and ugliness, that a pattern prevails, and that what matters most is what cannot be seen.

Inheritance is Livi Michael's most mature book to date; it should bring her to the wider readership she deserves.