Saturday 19 August 2017

Exposing the gore and glory of human condition

Fiction: Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout, Viking, hdbk, 272 pages, €15.99

True delight: There's a compassion radiating from Strout's telling of the Amgash inhabitants
True delight: There's a compassion radiating from Strout's telling of the Amgash inhabitants
Elizabeth Strout - Anything is Possible

Tanya Sweeney

Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Strout's follow-up to her 2016 My Name is Lucy Barton gives us another slice of small-town America, but she has upped the shock factor

Elizabeth Strout is a mistress of disguise. Within the homely, earthy topography of small-town America, she has created tales of breathless beauty. Much like she did with the depressed protagonist of the Pulitzer-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, Strout has made unforgettable heroines out of ordinary denizens with weaknesses and failings. Out of ordinary language and observations of the quotidian, she has fashioned unctuous writing that lingers on the skin.

And again, it's the terrain of the small-town, with its gossips and petty jealousies, that becomes the backbone of her sixth novel. The title of Anything is Possible is misleading, as it's a requiem for the frustrations and limitations of rural living.

And like Olive Kitteridge, the book is closer to a collection of short stories; a portmanteau feast in which the characters occasionally overlap and interlock. Here, we return to the small town of Amgash, Illinois, which may be familiar to readers of Strout's wonderful 2016 novel My Name is Lucy Barton. And in a rather gratifying turn of events, many of the characters touched on in Lucy Barton reappear - most notably Mississippi Mary, the Nicely girls and Lucy's brother, Pete. Anything is Possible works as a brilliant companion piece to the 2016 novel, incidentally, and while reading Lucy Barton will greatly enhance one's enjoyment of Strout's new book, it's a work that can be fully enjoyed in its own right.

Individually, many of the characters in the Illinois town in Anything is Possible carry a shameful sexual secret, or lack the emotional vocabulary or wherewithal to express a healthy, nourishing love. There are secrets being doggedly guarded from everyone in town. The inhabitants are, on occasion, culturally and emotionally deprived, seemingly cut off from the rest of the country and effectively forced to face each other.

There's Tommy, the kind dairy farmer-turned school janitor (working in the school that the Barton children attended), who has an encounter with Lucy's brother, Pete. Pete has been bound to the house he grew up in, even with it falling down around him, visited occasionally by his sister Lucy, now an established author (occasionally, the town's inhabitants buy Lucy's book from the local store).

There's Charlie, a haunted Vietnam vet, trapped in a loveless marriage who feels compelled to visit the lonesome Pete on occasion. Eventually, Charlie meets a prostitute and forms a unique, risky relationship with her. There's Linda, who married rich, if not particularly well. There's Dottie, the bed and breakfast owner who has seen it all (including some particularly rude customers). And Patty Nicely, a guidance counsellor, herself haunted by the long shadow of sexual abuse, who offers a kind gesture to Lila - Lucy's niece - by helping her get into college, even if she clearly doesn't deserve it.

Strout has certainly upped the ante and shock factor, with the mild gait of everyday small-town life tempering the shocking reality of what happens behind closed doors.

Her characters have become even more textured; a tussle between grace, hope and unkindness happening in almost all of them. As ever, the strained relationships, and casual unkindness of family run through the book. Few manage to capture the scraping pain of a family clawing its way out from under tragedy or misfortune quite like Strout does. In 'Snow Blind', a father with dementia is committed to a care home and eventually lifts the lid on his scandalous life, which has been a closely guarded secret for years, to his daughter. It is, to my mind, one of the most brilliant, if emotionally bracing, passages in the book.

For all their vulnerabilities and shortcomings, Strout's tapestry of characters here is a true delight. Occasionally, the plots run hither and thither, but the real power of Strout's writing lies in those glorious metaphors; that effortless sleight of hand. It's a testament to her unnerving skill as a writer that Strout can be so evocative and bracing with such sheer economy of language. Imagery of Illinois cornfields, open skies and swing porches are as deliciously vivid as a National Geographic photo. (She did much the same to wondrous effect in Olive Kitteridge, somehow making the salty sea air of Maine fetid with parochialism). It's impossible not to be impressed time and time again with Strout's way with words; simple, exquisite, gentle, wise. There's a compassion radiating from Strout's telling of the Amgash, Illinois inhabitants; an empathy for even the most lost, cruel, petty or tragic of characters. It's this gentleness that makes the shocking events that unfold all the more gut wrenching, and manages to articulate each character's real emotional truth.

That said, Everything is Possible is not a comfortable, nicey-nicey read. From sex workers and adulterers to rapists, Strout has dug deep to create ever more confrontational, audacious snapshots of small-town life. The good and the virtuous are forced to remain in close quarters with the petty and the cruel, and this creates its own claustrophobic atmosphere. For all its shock factor, Strout has managed to veer from cliffhangers, cheap climaxes and denouements - the realism of long-term secrets and lies doing much of the plot's spadework.

Elsewhere, there are answers given to questions raised and left unattended in My Name is Lucy Barton, and this is a particularly gratifying read because of it. But Anything is Possible is positively soaked in beauty, and Strout has captured the gore and the glory of the human condition better than most.

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