The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: A Baileys contender

Being a bit of an Elizabeth Strout fan, I was delighted to see her latest novel long listed for Baileys Prize Cover image last week. The Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge was greatly admired in the States but I’m not sure it made much of an impression here in the UK. She writes the sort of quietly understated, astutely observed novels about everyday life and how we live it that remind me of Alice Munro, Carol Shields and Alice McDermott. The Burgess Boys is no exception. It tells the story of the eponymous brothers: Jim, a hot-shot lawyer, and the anxious Bob, employed in a far more lowly position, adoring of his arrogant, bullying brother. Both live in New York and see each other regularly thanks mostly to Jim’s wife Helen, fond of Bob and missing her children who’ve all left home. They rarely if ever see Susan, Bob’s twin, who still lives in Shirley Falls where the three of them grew up. Divorced, raising a son and almost perpetually angry, Susan carps about the burgeoning Somali population which has found its way to Maine where no one has much of an idea of where they’ve come from or what they’re doing there. A frantic phone call from Susan sets in train a series of events that changes all their lives – Zachery has thrown a half-frozen pig’s head into the Somalis’ mosque and may find himself charged with a hate crime.

Strout explores the Burgess family and how they came to be who they are through the people who make up their immediate world – Pam, Bob’s ex-wife with whom he is still close friends; Helen, Jim’s slightly complacent, entitled yet well-meaning wife and Mrs Drinkwater, Susan’s elderly lodger who has listened worriedly to Zach’s lonely tears from her room. She’s a master of ‘show don’t tell’, conveying a great deal with the lightest of brushstrokes making her acute social observation – often spiced with a gentle humour – all the more striking. Bob continues to idolise his hectoring older brother who greets him as ‘slobdog’ as if it’s a term of endearment until Jim makes a startling revelation. Jim continues to live off the glory of his celebrity trial days until it proves useless in protecting his nephew. Helen can’t help feeling it’s all a terrible nuisance interfering with her pleasant if vaguely unsatisfying life while Pam looks at her own privileged life and wonders if it’s the one she should be leading, fantasising about the scientific discoveries she’d hoped to make. All this against the background of the Somali refugees’ plight, many of whom have fled danger and torture only to be met with total, if well-meaning, incomprehension or worse. Just one small gripe – the novel begins with a short prologue narrated by the writer of the Burgess boys’ story and I’m still puzzled as to why. Let me know if you’ve read the novel and have any ideas about it – perhaps I’ve missed something.

11 thoughts on “The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: A Baileys contender”

  1. I have this on order from the library so have rather skim read your review. I think Strout is one of the really neglected writers here in the UK and I’m delighted to see this on the Bailey’s list. She reminds me of Richard Russo, who is another writer that doesn’t get the acclaim he deserves.

    1. I hope you enjoy it when it arrives, Alex. I know what you mean about Richard Russo who writes fine prose but can also be hilarious. The Straight Man had me in stiches and according to my academic partner is spot on with regard to university politics which seems much the same here as it is in the US.

  2. For some reason that I now can’t remember, I didn’t get on with Olive Kitteridge. But that being said, I thought the quality of the writing was fantastic. I’d be more than willing to try her again.

  3. Prologues are often so obvious in being an afterthought instead of what the forethought that they claim to be.

    I didn’t remember the prologue, so I’ve just gone back and reread it and remember doing the same thing after finishing reading the book, wondering who the narrator actually was. Maybe it’s an afterthought to substantiate who is actually telling the story, I don’t think it was necessary and it was way too long.

    I much preferred Olive Kitteridge to this novel and felt the authors handling of characters representing the immigrant community too timid. But then, she does emphasize in the title whose lives she is holding the magnifying glass to.

    1. I’m glad it’s not just me with that prologue – it sits oddly with the rest of the book. I see your point about the Somalis but I don’t think a heavier emphasis would suit her kind of writing.

  4. Pingback: Five days in Madrid and the case of the mutilated book | A life in books

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