Banishing Verona concerns a 22-year-old house painter living in London. One soon realizes that Zeke Cafarelli is not normal. He has had a nervous breakdown a few years earlier; collects clocks--he has nine at the beginning of the novel and adds two more by novel's end--which he takes apart and restores; he has basic questions about interpersonal relations that, were it not for his illness, mentioned once, briefly and vaguely (24), one would describe as childlike naiveté.

For example, he wonders why people lie. Or, why is it so easy to identify vegetables (his parents are greengrocers) but not people each time one encounters them in even slightly different settings? Several times the author describes Zeke's mother or father (whom Zeke calls Gwen and Don, respectively) while their son is trying to confirm their identity as his parents.

Quite early in the narrative, like a dea ex machina, Verona MacIntyre enters Zeke's life. Or perhaps Venus on the half shell would be a more specific identification of the dea, since Verona is pregnant, and soon becomes as naked as Venus in the famous painting by Botticelli, to whose paintings Zeke is likened with his angelic appearance and lustrous hair. The two become oceanic--if not star-crossed--lovers-at-first-sight since Verona has to traipse off to Boston to help bail her sociopathic brother out of yet another financial and amorous mess of his own making. Despite the appearances of Jigger (Verona and Henry's grandfather in the persona of a long letter to Verona), and Toby (a mutual lover-friend of Verona and Henry), and Maurice (Gwen's lover), the plot does not seem unwieldy.


Zeke has Asperger's syndrome, a highly functioning variant of autism (see Mary Gordon, Living at Home; and Augusten Burroughs, Running with Scissors--both annotated in this database). Social relationships do not come easily to him. With the help of a therapist he learns to adopt (to him, unnatural) "tricks" for normal social interactions, such as saying "Hmm" when listening to others. Instead of the instant processing of a smile or a smirk, Zeke has to "recognize" such gestures and then interpret them. His is quite a literal world.

He reminds one of Borges's Funes the Memorious (Funes el Memorioso), (see this database) for whom each entity in the universe was unique, a prime number as it were. Both are fascinated by the comfort of numbers and take solace in their concreteness, their unmistakable individuality. (Who has ever mistaken a 7 for 12?). Lying in the darkness of some friends' apartment, Zeke found "there was nothing tangible to count. I'll count forms, he thought. He pictured the three kinds of triangles: scalene, isosceles, equilateral; then a pyramid, a circle, a sphere, a square, a cube, a rectangle, a parallelogram, a trapezoid, a spiral" (277). Like A. R. Luria's mnemonist [see The Mind of a Mnemonist: A Little Book about a Vast Memory), Zeke and Funes prefer to live in the asocial, as opposed to antisocial, world of literalness. All three are uncomfortable with and unable to interpret metaphor. ("'I think,' said Zeke carefully--this was not his area of expertise--'she may have been speaking metaphorically'" (228).

In many respects, Banishing Verona is an attempt to analyze communication via the instrument of a person we would ordinarily refer to as "impaired." Zeke is almost constitutionally incapable of lying, just as he is innately "impaired" when it comes to the poetic form of lying we call "metaphor." Most of the characters who know Zeke admire his truthfulness, which becomes a leit motiv of the book, especially when the reader compares Zeke to the highly social and more worldly wise, but morally naive and immature, Henry, Verona's sleazy brother. Clearly we are meant to marvel how humane Zeke is compared to the "normal" humans in the novel and how it might be a far better world with more Zekes and fewer Henrys.

Banishing Verona is a brave novel about a brave young man who is hanging on to the social world by his paint-stained fingertips. He is living and working in a society whose rules he but dimly understands and plays by memory, not by any intuited natural feel. (In this sense, Zeke is a prototypically Rousseauvian noble savage, a social naif, but one so constituted by virtue of cognitive and affectual limitations and therefore of limited educable potential.)

Ms. Livesey more than once allows Zeke, and the reader, to understand that Zeke is us, albeit a more primitive us. (Although a painter of houses, Zeke is in a sense a painter--and liver in society--in the mold of Grandma Moses, or, perhaps more apposite, Adolf Wölfli). As Zeke reflects, "in the midst of his despair he had a moment of illumination. His condition, which sometimes made him feel so different from other people, was only one bend on a winding road along which many other people wandered" (234). An uncharacteristically metaphoric illumination.


Born in Scotland, Margot Livesey lives in the Boston area where she is a writer-in-residence at Emerson College.


Henry Holt

Place Published

New York



Page Count