Sometimes you want to tell everyone you know just how good an author is, press their books into as many hands as possible. I’ve felt that way about Elizabeth Strout’s writing for some time. My proof copy’s jacket proclaims her ‘the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of’. That may be less true than it was with the release of HBO’s fine adaptation of Olive Kitteridge a few years back. If you’ve come across that already, you’ll know that her writing can be dark and so it is with My Name is Lucy Barton. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities.
Lucy looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago when a simple appendix removal resulted in an illness which resisted both diagnosis and cure. After four weeks of boredom, loneliness and isolation she wakes up one morning to find her mother sitting opposite her bed. Lucy has not seen her mother since she took her prospective husband home many years ago. Her mother stays for six days – bolting when it appears that Lucy may need surgery – filling their time together telling stories about people Lucy once knew all of whom seem to have suffered unhappiness in their marriages. Her father is left unmentioned by both of them until her mother leaves, and then only briefly. The next time Lucy sees her mother, nine years later, she will be close to death and Lucy will be a successful writer. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection.
There’s a passage in the book in which an author tells Lucy that ‘her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do’ which sums up Strout’s own writing beautifully for me. Lucy reports on the poverty and neglect – both emotional and physical – which singled her out as a child, exposing her to mockery in small-town Illinois. She’s a woman who never learnt how to be in the world, a child whose parents taught her nothing, carefully avoiding revealing their own pain in words while conveying it in their inability to express their love to their children. Despite her eventual success, Lucy feels untethered, quick to love those who are kind to her, constantly looking at others to see how she should behave. Strout unfolds Lucy’s life in vignettes from her past and future filled with reflections and uncertainties. She is, of course, an unreliable narrator – this is written years after the event – but then Lucy is certain of nothing about herself, or others, apart from her own loneliness. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels: ‘Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there’, wrings the heart as does Lucy’s efforts to comfort herself when locked in the grimy family truck as a punishment: ‘It’s okay, sweetie. A nice woman’s going to come soon. And you’re a very good girl, you’re such a good girl’. Not an easy read then, but a superlative one, which ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism. Listen up literary prize judges, this one’s a contender if ever I read one.