BOOK REVIEW: Elizabeth Strout

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My Name is Lucy Barton
By Elizabeth Strout
Viking, 4 February, £12.99 hardback (ebook available)

“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Or to put it more colloquially: swings and roundabouts. Last year saw the publication of numerous doorstop-sized books. The start of 2016 sees us clutching slim volumes from the likes of Julian Barnes, Graham Swift (which I’ll be reviewing), and American author Elizabeth Strout, winner of the Pulitzer prize for her novel Olive Kitteridge.

My Name is Lucy Barton is the story of a woman confined to hospital by mysterious post-operative infections, who is visited by her long-estranged mother.

That’s one description. I prefer to view it as an epic family saga about the legacy of emotional damage, written with a poet’s economy and potency. For that reason, I recommend reading it twice.

From the start it brought Chekov to mind: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now. . . ” Time is a key player, with numerous uses of phrases such as, “many years ago,” “in those days,” “for many years.” The narrative skates backwards and forwards, leaving patterns on the ice that prove everything’s connected.

Lucy narrates, and to be honest, her voice can disconcert. She is a repeater. She says, “I was so happy. Oh, I was happy speaking with my mother this way!” and, “This is what I want to think. This is what I think.”

Later there’s this: “. . . but she treated him decently, there was something decent in the way this woman and Sarah treated this man,” followed by, “I jumped up with terrible fear, and Sarah Payne jumped up as well; terribly she jumped.”

Deliberate repetition in a book so brief? Surrender to it, and Lucy’s delivery makes sense. This is also the story of a writer’s beginnings, and Lucy is searching for her voice. After a harsh, horrible childhood (her only solace came from books that made her “feel less alone”), she has found — is finding — her feet and her feelings. It is difficult. She comes from a family so repressed, so uncomfortable with their terrifying emotions that communication occurs elliptically if at all. Lucy has to read between the lines, and we can forgive her for inventing soothing interpretations of what’s been said.

Language doubles back because Lucy is treading carefully, asking, “does this accurately reflect what I want to say — and will they understand?”

The arrival of Lucy’s nameless mother feels to both reader and protagonist like an apparition. She appears without warning at the foot of Lucy’s bed and remains there — even sleeping in her chair— for five days. It’s an odd vigil. The trip has been initiated and paid for by Lucy’s affluent husband, yet her mother doesn’t meet him or ask one question about him. Nor does he visit the hospital during this week. The mother’s primary topic of conversation is marital disaster — though obliquely, through gossip about their old neighbours. Her own marriage never comes under scrutiny, nor does she discuss Lucy’s, not even to ask after her grandchildren. Yet Lucy is entranced, delighted to be “speaking to my mother in this way.”

When you are starving, scraps taste like a feast.

Little by little stories about Lucy’s family — sister, brother, war-traumatised father — surface in Lucy’s memories, though she can’t get her mother to discuss why they were so desperately poor, or why abuse occurred — not even that it occurred. Even when Lucy begs, her mother won’t say “I love you.” The best she can do is edge up alongside the words, and Lucy frets that readers won’t understand that this is enough. But anyone who’s ever longed for a mother’s presence will understand why Lucy, dozing as her mother speaks, thinks, “All I want is this.”

Poverty and isolation kept Lucy from developing tools for navigating the world. Intelligence was her saviour, for it won her a university scholarship that enabled her to escape. From that moment she and her family were virtually estranged. And when the culture-starved young woman married and moved to Manhattan it was tantamount to falling off the edge of the world as far as everyone was concerned.

Lucy meets a woman called Sarah Payne in a shop, and discovers she’s a writer. Payne downplays it. “I’m just a writer. That’s all. . . . Oh, you know, books, fiction, things like that, it doesn’t matter, really.” Lucy goes to hear her speak, and when Payne defines the writer’s job as “reporting on the human condition,” Lucy is inspired to take up her pen.

Yet she echoes Payne’s self-effacement (there are many instances of echoing in the novel). When a neighbour hears she’s had a story published, Lucy says, “Just a silly little really small literary magazine.” The neighbour advises that she must be ruthless. Payne tells her the same thing, saying, “If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

Ironically, reviewers dismiss Payne’s work for containing the “softness of compassion”.

I wondered about them trivialising their vocation while also having the gumption and self-belief to persist. It felt an especially negative female trait. It also struck me as an insightful comment on the way damaged people internalise the feeling that they have no right to a voice.

Back in the hospital a crisis occurs — worrying test results suggest Lucy might die without emergency surgery. Her mother stands up and abruptly departs. It’s shocking. It feels cruel. And it’s entirely in keeping with her (and the entire family’s) inability to stay in the room with strong emotion.

Lucy copes with her own strong emotions by writing, but that does not exorcise them. She points out that there is pain we can’t relinquish because it’s become part of who we are. She’s all right with that, and ends her delicate, poignant story on a joyful note of wonder and love.

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