Thursday 18 January 2018

Books: Extraordinary voice of an ordinary life

Fiction: My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout, Viking, hdbk, 208 pages, €16.99

A novel you will want to return to: Elizabeth Strout. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty
A novel you will want to return to: Elizabeth Strout. Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty

Some books are so small and unassuming, you are hardly aware of their power until you've put them away and let their quiet stories percolate. From the very first words of My Name Is Lucy Barton, you are drawn into the eponymous protagonist's story by her gentle, intelligent voice. Lucy is a young wife, and mother of two small daughters, living in New York in the 1960s. She is in hospital for a protracted stay, being treated for a mysterious illness. She is missing her daughters, who are being cared for by a local woman. Meanwhile, her husband doesn't visit her in the hospital very often but he is aware, from her nightly phone calls, that his wife is acutely lonely. And so he calls Lucy's mother, who she hasn't seen for many years, and asks her to visit.

When Lucy awakens to see her mother at her bedside, her memories of her childhood in dirt-poor Illinois move in and out of the narrative, not unlike the way in which the patient moves in and out of consciousness.

Elizabeth Strout is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the collection of short stories Olive Kitteridge (which were later turned into an Emmy-winning HBO television series starring Frances McDormand) and it's easy to see why she is so lauded.

Through the tiniest details, she gathers a mood that tells us everything we need to know about Lucy - her denial about her marriage, her love for her daughters, how her relationship with her own mother has informed that relationship, her affection for a kind doctor who visits her every day. Indeed, this doctor, in going above and beyond his duty to Lucy, comes to represent the very kindness that was alien to Lucy as a child growing up, and even in her adult life. Lucy's post-World War II childhood was not a happy one. She was often cold and hungry and her mother never told her she loved her - and even as adults in Lucy's hospital room, she still cannot.

Strout's tiny novel works impressively on a grander scale too. She uses Lucy's experience to describe that of so many American baby boomers, those who started off so poor in the wide-open rural plains of America and made their way towards the epicentre of the American Dream, New York City, to live lives that would have been unimaginable to their younger selves.

Through Lucy's upbringing, Strout casts a cold eye on the institute of family and how it shapes us, along with love and marriage through the lack of affection so clearly present in Lucy's union. Then there are the stories Lucy's mother delights in telling about the failed marriages of the people they grew up with, as if the constancy of her own unhappy marriage was something to be proud of.

The story is told in retrospect, from the vantage point of hindsight, so we already know when the book starts that Lucy eventually recovers from her illness and that her marriage ended. We already know which readers' hopes are futile and which ones we can allow ourselves to nurse.

It makes for a tense reading experience despite the apparent lack of dramatic tension. In many ways, this perfectly formed novel feels like a song, the kind of song Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen might sing, a full story of a life woven out of just enough details to let you fill in the blanks yourself, and to make it feel universal.

My Name is Lucy Barton is suffused with ordinary sadness, and perhaps that's what makes it so affecting. There are no catastrophic traumas, no tragedies, just that everyday disappointment and disillusionment of an everyday life told in the extraordinary voice that we all keep inside ourselves, the voice that tells us our lives are different, special, that we somehow matter, before we die. This is a book you will want to return to again, and again, and again.

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