This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of my favourite UK literary award, The Women’s Prize for Fiction. I still remember being excited at the prospect of this prize when it was first announced and my delight when Helen Dunmore’s A Spell in Winter was the inaugural winner of what was then called the Orange Prize. The 2020 longlist will be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2019 and March 31st 2020 qualify. Over the past few years I’ve failed miserably in predicting what took the judges fancy but truth be told I’d much rather indulge myself with a fantasy list rather than speculate as to what they might think. What follows, then, is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. I’ve followed the same format as previous years, limiting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog. So, in no particular order here’s my wish list for the 2020 Women’s Prize for Fiction:
There are some notable omissions from my list including Anne Enright’s Actress which I’m sure deserves a place but I’ve yet to read it. I may be stretching the rules a bit with Olive, Again, technically linked short stories rather than a novel but, hey, it’s my fantasy list. I’d be delighted if any one of these fifteen snags the judges’ attention – fingers firmly crossed.
What about you? Any titles you’d love to see on the judges’ list?
We’re on the home stretch, now, heading towards the end of 2019, and already anticipating the shiny and new in 2020. September, which I like to call late summer stretching that in to October weather permitting, began with Etgar Keret’s Fly Already a collection of twenty punchy, inventive short stories, some no longer than a page or two. A few of Keret’s pieces are disconcerting – more than a little wacky – others are pure comedy, often using humour to make a point, but all are memorable. The complications of humanity are sweetly satirised and even the rich, who come in for some thoroughly justified lampooning, are treated with a sympathetic understanding. It’s a hugely enjoyable collection, full of surprises. I’d not heard of Keret before although I gather he’s acquired an international reputation. Richly deserved, if Fly Already is anything to go by.
October saw two novels that exemplified beautifully crafted, immersive storytelling, the first of which was Ann Patchett’s The Dutch House. It’s the story of an unusual house, almost a work of art, and the obsessions it sparks. It’s also the story of the Conroys, the family whose history is indelibly marked by this house whose huge glass windows leave them exposed to the world. Patchett’s writing is smoothly polished but it’s her storytelling, laced with an elegant wit, that kept me gripped, wondering what would happen to these characters whose lives are hedged around with secrets and silence, who seem to fall under the influence of this house even when trying to resist it. Altogether a treat: a book to curl up with, well turned out, absorbing and satisfying. I would love to have seen it on the Booker longlist, at the very least.
I’m sure the Conroys’ house was as important to them as the eponymous work in Neil Hegarty’s The Jewel was to its creator. Ostensibly the story of an art heist, Hegarty’s novel explores a multitude of themes through the stories of the theft’s three principle players – the thief, the art historian charged with displaying the piece and the specialist called in to help solve the crime. The result is a richly textured novel whose astutely observed characters have all endured tragedy and misfortune. This is Hegarty’s second novel and it did that rare thing: exceeded the high expectations raised by his fine debut, Inch Levels. I’m already looking forward to his third.
November’s favourites were heralded by a book for which I had even higher expectations, and once again they were fulfilled. This year saw the return of the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge, familiar to fans of Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form, comprising thirteen closely-knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.
Karina Sainz Borgo’s It Would Be Night in Caracas tells the story of a woman in a very different set of circumstances. Now middle-aged, Adelaida grew up against a backdrop of the Bolivarian Revolution. Food shortages have become starvation for many and a source of wealth for others. Abductions are commonplace, gunshot frequent, medicine hard to come by and expensive. When an opportunity presents itself, Adelaida finds herself engaged in the unthinkable in a determined effort to escape the city’s mayhem. Borgo’s novel effectively humanises the horrors taking place on the streets of Caracas through the story of one woman. Publishers’ lists are full of dystopian fiction, often depicting post-apocalyptic events, but if you want to see what a real dystopia looks like, this is it. In the here and now
Rather fittingly, given that I’ve read so many of them over the past few years, I’m bringing 2019’s favourites to a close with a novella. Written in clean bright prose Hanne Ørstavik’s Love tells the story of a mother and her son on the eve of his ninth birthday, a milestone she’s forgotten and he’s convinced she’s secretly planning to celebrate. Over the course of a frigid Norwegian night – each of them outdoors, unbeknownst to the other – their paths will almost cross several times, both returning home to a day which will be far from what either of them might have anticipated. Altogether a very polished, powerful piece of writing, beautifully expressed.
And if I had to choose? That would be a challenge I’d rather not take, but if push comes to shove I’d have to plump for The Dutch House, The Jewel and Olive, Again, although don’t ask me to rank them. As ever, the trimming down to just twenty-four was a painful process, particularly dropping Faces on the Tip of my Tongue, Lot and Echoes of the City, all of which are superb. I hope your year has been as filled with literary excellence as mine.
Just one more review to come before devoting the rest of my posting year to looking forward, previewing some of the delights publishers have in store for us in January 2020. In the meantime, all the above titles link to a full review on this blog should you want to know more, and if you’d like to catch up with the first three instalments of 2019’s favourites they’re here, here and here.
What a joy to spot a new Elizabeth Strout in the publishing schedules and an even greater one to find that it’s about the irascible yet essentially warm-hearted Olive Kitteridge from Strout’s eponymous Pulitzer Prize-winning book published in 2008. Olive, Again takes the same form as the original, comprising thirteen closely knit short stories in which Olive is often the central character, sometimes a co-star and occasionally a bit-player.
I like you, Olive… … I’m not sure why, really. But I do
Strout’s book opens with Jack Kennison, recently widowed and on his way to the next town to buy whiskey in order to avoid bumping in to Olive. Readers already acquainted with her might assume it’s to avoid her judgemental gaze but the tentative relationship between these two has stalled and Jack wants to spare them both embarrassment. As with Olive Kitteridge, Strout takes us into the lives and homes of several inhabitants of Crosby, Maine where Olive taught maths and lived with her husband, Henry, for decades. Olive is far from the most popular of Crosby’s residents. Apparently short on empathy and with no patience for modern social niceties such as baby showers, she’s unwavering in approaching the unapproachable, visiting a middle-aged woman who may be dying when her friends are too scared to face her. The very idea of Olive at a baby shower might well discombobulate those who’ve met her before but when a pregnant guest goes into labour it’s the no-nonsense Olive who saves the day. Her uncompromisingly brusque exterior hides a practical humanity and she’s generous in her honesty when she gets things wrong.
He would never have imagined it. The Olive-ness of her, the neediness of himself; never in his life would he have imagined that he would spend his final years with such a woman in such a way
Small details fill in Olive’s life for readers who’ve not read her first outing or those of us who can’t quite remember it all and are cursing ourselves for not finding the time for a reread. The sharp characterisation, dry humour, understated prose interspersed with occasional passages of quietly lyrical descriptive writing are all present and correct. Strout trusts her readers to infer and draw their own conclusions. Her themes are pleasingly familiar: small town life, loneliness, regret, love, the complications of human relationships, and ageing as unflinchingly explored as Olive would demand. Ordinary everyday day life is filled with events unremarkable to others but extraordinary to those who live through them. Epiphanies are had. Time passes. Olive grows old but not always alone. It’s a triumph. I’m deeply suspicious of sequels but delighted that Strout took me back to Crosby to meet Olive again. My hope is that Frances Mcdormand, who was such a thoroughly convincing Olive in HBO’s miniseries, is already practicing her lines.
Viking: London 2019 9780241374597 304 pages Hardback
I’m relieved to say there are sufficient attention-grabbing titles for a two-part November preview, although there’s no contest as to which one tops my list. As fans will already know, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again sees the return of Olive Kitteridge. Olive is both the star of the show and a bit player in these closely linked stories set in the small town of Crosby. The ‘spiky, obdurate and disarmingly human anti-heroine Olive Kitteridge [returns] for a fine chronicle of late love and generational division, set in the coastal Maine community that Strout has made her own’ promise the publishers and they are entirely right. Review to follow next month.
From a book by a thoroughly seasoned writer to a debut with Shannon Pufahl’s On Swift Horses set in 1950s San Diego where newlywed, Muriel, works as a waitress picking up tips from the denizens of the Del Mar racetrack but unwilling to split her winnings with her husband. It’s Lee’s brother who Muriel wants to share her good luck with but he’s patrolling the Las Vegas casinos where he meets and falls in love with Henry. ‘Through the parks and plazas of Tijuana and the bars and beaches of San Diego, On Swift Horses mesmerisingly charts the journeys of Muriel and Julius on their separate quests for freedom, new horizons and love’ say the publishers. Very much like the sound of this one.
Moving west, Daniel Handler’s Bottle Grove begins with a wedding in a forest followed by what sounds like a raucous party. ‘Set in San Francisco as the tech-boom is exploding, Bottle Grove is a sexy, skewering dark comedy about two unions–one forged of love and the other of greed–and about the forces that can drive couples together, into dependence, and then into sinister, even supernatural realms’ say the publishers. I’m a little worried about that mention of the supernatural but I like the setting and the promise further on in the blurb that everyone has a secret.
Parties are on the agenda in Binnie Kirshenbaum’s Rabbits for Food, which begins on New Year’s Eve when writer, Bunny, finally falls to pieces. Once admitted to a classy New York psychiatric hospital, Bunny refuses all meds and instead begins to write a novel about her fellow patients and what’s brought about her own breakdown. ‘Rabbits for Food shows how art can lead us out of-or into-the depths of disconsolate loneliness and piercing grief. A bravura literary performance from one of America’s finest writers’ according to the publishers. I have to admit I hadn’t heard of Kirshenbaum before but this does sound interesting.
I enjoyed Ben Lerner’s 10:04very much when I read it back in 2015 but didn’t get on at all well with Leaving the Atocha Station. The Topeka School is about Adam Gordon, a senior at Topeka High School in 1997, who seems to be good at just about everything but whose efforts to include the class loner end disastrously. ‘Deftly shifting perspectives and time periods, The Topeka School is a riveting story about the challenges of raising a good son in a culture of toxic masculinity. It is also a startling prehistory of the present: the collapse of public speech, the tyranny of trolls and the new right, and the ongoing crisis of identity among white men’ says the blurb which sounds extraordinarily ambitious to me.
I’m finish with a book by the only British author in the batch – Sara Hall’s collection, Sudden Traveller which comprises seven stories whose settings range from Turkey to Cumbria. ’Radical, charged with a transformative creative power, each of these stories opens channels in the human mind and spirit, as Sarah Hall once more invites the reader to stand at the very edge of our possible selves’ say the publishers rather grandly. Jon McGregor has sung her previous work’s praises as has David Mitchell and Jessie Burton. I think it’s about time I read some of her stories.
That’s it for the first part of November’s preview. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that’s snagged your attention. Part two soon…
Fewer treats than usual in May for me but three of them are from some of my favourite authors. It was a toss-up as to which one of them should lead this preview but in the end it had to be Elizabeth Strout. Anything is Possible is a novel told in stories linked to Lucy Barton, familiar to readers of last year’s very fine My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a successful writer living in New York but these stories explore the lives of those she left behind in the small town of Amgash, Illinois. ‘Writing these stories, Lucy imagines the lives of the people that she especially remembers. And the people she has imagined that, in small ways, have remembered her too. For isn’t it true that we all hope to be remembered? Or to think in some way – even fleetingly – that we have been important to someone?’ say the publishers. Such an interesting device to have a character playing the role of the author of a book.
Colm Tóibin’s House of Names comes a very close second to Anything is Possible but I’m slightly put off by its premise. It’s a retelling of the story of Agamemnon whose shocking sacrifice of his daughter in an effort to secure the gods’ approval for his battle plans plunges his family into a terrible and violent chaos. ‘They cut her hair before they dragged her to the place of sacrifice. Her mouth was gagged to stop her cursing her father, her cowardly, two-tongued father. Nonetheless, they heard her muffled screams’ quotes the publisher assuring us that it’s ‘a work of great beauty, and daring, from one of our finest living writers’. I won’t argue with the last point.
Even before my short story conversion I would have read Haruki Murakami’s Men without Women. These seven stories bear many of the hallmarks no doubt familiar to fellow fans – ’vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles’ promises the publisher who also quotes the author on writing short stories in the book’s blurb: ’I find writing novels a challenge, writing stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.’ I’d still prefer a novel.
I’m particularly fond of the idea of an apartment block portrayed as a microcosm of a city – Alaa Al Aswany did it beautifully in The Yacoubian Building as did Manil Suri in The Death of Vishnu but my favourite has to be Georges Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Fran Cooper’s debut, These Dividing Walls, is set in a Parisian building whose inhabitants live their separate lives, barely aware of their neighbours’ existence. Enter Edward who seems to be about to change all that. ‘As the feverish metropolis is brought to boiling point, secrets will rise and walls will crumble both within and without Number 37…’ say the publishers somewhat melodramatically. Maybe I’ve set the bar too high having Perec in mind but it sounds worth investigating.
I tend to shy away from dystopian fiction, particularly at the moment. My optimistic world view has taken such a bashing over the past year that I’m looking for a little comfort. Megan Hunter’s first novel, The End We Start From, is set against a backdrop of an environmental crisis which sees London under water. It follows a couple desperately seeking sanctuary for themselves and their new-born baby. This all sounds a little familiar, a well-worn dystopian trope, but what’s caught my attention is the promise of beautiful writing and this quote from the blurb: ‘though the country is falling apart around them, this family’s world – of new life and new hope – sings with love’. Let’s hope so.
I’m finishing this preview with a novel which, unusually for a new title, I’ve already read – Daniel Lowe’s All That’s Left to Tell. Two people tell each other stories: one is a hostage, the other a female interrogator who visits him at night after he’s been blindfolded by his guards. Marc has been kidnapped while on business in Pakistan and finds himself caught up in the web of stories the woman he comes to know as Josephine weaves around his murdered daughter. These are the bare bones of Lowe’s cleverly structured, subtle debut which I found utterly engrossing. Breathes new life into that hoary old cliché ‘unputdownable’. Review to follow next month.
That’s it for May’s new books. A click on any of the titles that takes your fancy will give you a more detailed synopsis. Paperbacks to follow soon…
The first instalment of February’s paperback preview took a few steps outside my comfort zone but this one’s stuffed with tried and tested favourites, four of which made it onto my books of 2016 lists, and the fifth narrowly missed doing so only because things seemed to be getting out of hand.
My only disappointment with Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is that it hasn’t won the shedload of prizes I was hoping it would. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. 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. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion, as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism.
Expectations were also high for The Crime Writerby Jill Dawson, another favourite writer of mine. The titular crime writer is Patricia Highsmith for whose work Dawson has a self-confessed addiction. Her novel is based on Highsmith’s sojourn in Suffolk where she set herself up to be close to her married lover. Dawson divides her narrative between first and third person, making Highsmith the quintessential unreliable narrator and unsettling her readers with her protagonist’s ceaselessly questioning and claustrophobic inner monologue. Dawson has a talent for working historical figures into her fiction – most notably Rupert Brooke in The Great Lover – but The Crime Writer is the ultimate in literary fan fiction. Absolutely engrossing even if, like me, you’re not a Highsmith aficionado.
Sjón’s writing was a new discovery for me last year. Moonstone is set in 1918, this fable-like novella follows sixteen-year-old orphan Máni Steinn over the three months that Spanish influenza rages through Reykjavík. Mani funds his expensive movie habit by turning tricks, always on the lookout for Sólborg Gudbjörnsdóttir who zooms around the city on her red Indian motorcycle, dressed in black leathers, the very image of Musidora, the star of Máni’s favourite movie. There’s a gorgeously poetic, dreamlike quality to this slim novella whose ending is extraordinarily beautiful – both fantastical and moving. Kudos to Victoria Cribb for such a sensitive translation of a remarkable piece of writing
Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter was one of those books that took me by surprise, much better than its slightly fluffy synopsis suggested. It’s set against the backdrop of a high-end restaurant in New York where Tess has fetched up having turned her back on smalltown Ohio. After proving her mettle, Tess catches the eye of both Simone, the restaurant’s expert sommelier, and Jake, its rakish bartender, and is drawn into the orbit of these two damaged personalities. It’s a thoroughly engrossing novel, hard to put down, and an acutely perceptive portrait of a young woman whose idealism is stripped from her.
My last February paperback is Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing in which our unnamed narrator works in cancer research. Sitting outside on the smokers’ bench one day he meets a young Russian woman who introduces herself as a translator. He can’t help but be interested in this attractive young woman given to wry pronouncements about doctors and their well-meaning uselessness. It seems their friendship might become something else until the real reason for Marya’s presence in the hospital becomes apparent. There’s a welcome vein of quietly dark humour running through Duffy’s book, leavening its cool, slightly melancholic tone. It’s an unusual novel and it does that thing that good fiction so often does – educates us and helps us understand what it’s like for others.
That’s it for February. A click on any of the five titles will take you to my review. If you’d like to catch up with the first part of the paperback preview it’s here. New books for February are here and here.
Here we all are, hurtling towards the end of another year. Out there in the world, 2016 as proved to be pretty dreadful for liberals like me what with Brexit and Trump, not to mention the utter misery of Syria which surely touches us all. The reading world has been a much more comfortable place to be, although a little patchy in places for me. It certainly got off to a roaring start in January beginning with two books which share a similar theme. Set in 1960 against the backdrop of the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia, Helen Dunmore’s Exposure sees a woman fighting for her family’s survival when her husband becomes caught up in an old friend’s treachery. Gripping storytelling, sharp characterisation and beautifully crafted prose all combine in this subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. Another Dunmore triumph.
The Cold War is still quietly raging in Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, set in the last few weeks of 1981. Stephen is a ‘listener’ at The Institute wading through tapes of tapped phone calls attentive for the tiniest hint of treachery. When the loyalty of a colleague falls into question, Stephen is called upon to spy on him and finds himself obsessed by the operative’s wife. Kay draws you in to Stephen’s story while slowly but inexorably ratcheting up the tension. The dénouement when it comes is hardly a surprise but this isn’t a thriller in the traditional sense. Slow-burning and beautifully written, The Long Room is a gripping psychological study of loneliness and obsession.
Entirely different, Rachel B. Glaser’s first novel, Paulina & Fran is a raucous roller-coaster ride following the eponymous friends from when they first meet as students. It’s both savagely funny and heartrendingly poignant. Paulina strides around apparently impervious to criticism, hurling waspish barbs at her fellow students yet deflated by the slightest setback. Fran is incapable of making a decision about what to do with her life, obsessing over Paulina while eventually settling for the kind of job that would make her friend spit bile at its merest mention. It’s a very smart piece of fiction, portraying Paulina and Fran in all their spiky, messy, insecure, self-absorbed glory. And the ending is a masterstroke.
January’s fourth favourite is also a debut – Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back, the story of Marie who makes her living waiting tables at a classy Dallas steakhouse. Beneath her apparently calm exterior she struggles to keep herself together, unable to resist the welcome numbing of drugs, self-harm and the kind of sex that leaves her empty. Tierce’s writing is often graphic, sometimes uncomfortably so – descriptions of Marie’s abasement make difficult reading but that’s what makes her character so vivid. It can also be strikingly poetic. Love Me Back is a startlingly accomplished debut – compulsively addictive. I’m looking forward to seeing what Tierce comes up with next.
February delivered a couple of excellent reads beginning with Kim Echlin’s superb Under the Visible Life. Like Paulina & Fran, it’s a story of female friendship set against a backdrop of tumultuous social change and cultural difference. Echlin takes her time, unfolding Katherine and Mahsa’s stories using alternating narratives to round out these very different characters through their distinctive voices: Katherine’s sharp, passionate and frenetic; Masha’s gentle, quietly determined, almost poetic at times. It’s a complicated, nuanced portrait of a friendship between two strong women able to withstand all that’s thrown at them, from forced marriage to a philandering junkie husband, always finding their way to each other through music even when one fails to understand the other’s behaviour.
You may have noticed that all five of my books of 2016 so far have been by women as is the sixth: Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton for which I had high hopes as a Baileys contender, sadly dashed. It did, at least, make it on to the longlist but there it stuck, much to my mystification. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities as she looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago. 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. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels, and it ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism which seems a good point at which to finish this post.
Six books covered already and it’s only the end of February but as I mentioned, it’s been a patchy reading year for me – the next post will leap ahead from March to June. Should you be interested, a click on any of the titles above will take you to my review.
It’s that time of year again. I had thought I might ignore the whole kit and caboodle this time around but I was prodded into action by an analysis of trends in Man Booker winners subtitled ‘Male and Middle-aged in Third Person’. On that basis mine is a list of no-hopers, or close to it, with just two men making the grade and only one of those middle-aged. It wasn’t planned that way just the way this year’s cookie crumbled. That said, isn’t it about time that the judges paid a little more attention? Or perhaps that should be publishers. They, after all, are the ones who nominate titles to be considered, aside from the odd one or two that the judges call in. And while we’re on that subject, why is it that the more titles a publisher has longlisted in previous years, the more they’re allowed to nominate in following years? Seems to favour the big boys and girls to me.
Like the judges I’ve allowed myself twelve books, although they sometimes stretch to thirteen. It’s quite possible that I’ll read a gem I’d loved to have included published before 30th September – Sara Taylor’s The Lauras, for instance or Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall – but I’m determined to include only the tried and tested. The judges will reveal their list on Wednesday 27th July but here’s mine – wishes not predictions, see above – in no particular order, with links to my reviews:
Here we go again and in my middle-aged way I can’t believe it’s that time already. The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist is due to be announced next Tuesday. Only novels written by women in English published between April 1st 2015 and March 31st 2016 qualify for the award. It’s one of the few prizes I pay much attention to these days so I’ve been thinking about what I’d like to see listed. What follows is entirely subjective, wishes rather than predictions. The most striking thing I’ve noticed while compiling the list is the number of excellent novels I’ve read by women published in 2016 – and it’s only February. I’ve followed the same format as last year, restricting myself to novels that I’ve read with a link to a full review on this blog for all but His Whole Life which I’ve read but not yet reviewed. So, in alphabetical order here’s my wish list for the 2016 Baileys Prize:
I’d like to think that a few of these are dead certs but long years of hoping that Kate Atkinson will be garlanded with every prize going has taught me that there’s no such thing. Others, like Merritt Tierce’s superb debut, are rank outsiders but as with dead certs you never can tell.
What about you? I’d love to know which books you’d like to see the Baileys judges plump for, dead certs or rank outsiders.
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 Kitteridgea 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.