Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

The inhabitants of Amgash appear to have invaded the imagination of Elizabeth Strout, not satisfied with being mere peripheral characters in her excellent novel My Name is Lucy Barton.

That book, which was a novel to us, is a memoir to them, one that a few of the characters we encounter in this set of stories will buy and read, one of them even attending a book signing near Chicago and meeting her again many, many years post their shared childhoods.

The characters vary in their kindnesses and quirks, in the opening story Pete, Lucy’s brother, resents his neighbour Tommy’s visits, carried out with heartfelt intention and yet perceived as a kind of torture, so much of what occurs between people is misunderstood due to the lack of communication or misreading of intentions.

In a voice without belligerence, even with a touch of apology to it, he said, “Look Tommy. I’d like it if you didn’t keep coming over here.” Pete’s lips were pale and cracked, and he wet them with his tongue, looking at the ground. For a moment Tommy was not sure  he heard right, but as he started to say “I only-” Pete looked at him fleetingly and said, “You do it to torture me, and I think enough time has gone by now.”

We find out what happened to the pretty Nicely girls, whose mother left the home after a brief affair that went wrong and lived a quiet life of regret nearby for years afterwards. Through Patty, we meet Lucy’s niece Lila, who has never met her Aunt but shares strong opinions of her with Patty, her school guidance counsellor.

Patty said, “That’s a nice name Lila Lane.” The girl said, I was supposed to be named for my aunt, but at the last minute my mom said, Fuck her.”

Patty took the papers and bounced their edges against the desk.

The girl sat up straight, and spoke with suddenness. “She’s a bitch. She thinks she’s better than any of us. I never even met her.”

Dottie runs a Bed and Breakfast and the steady churn of customers keeps her busy and entertained with company. Sometimes she meets the wealthy who wish to confide in her, it turns out they can be lonely too.

The next morning at breakfast Shelley did not acknowledge Dottie. Not even a thank you for the whole wheat toast.  Dottie was very surprised;  her eyes watered with the  sudden sting of this. But then she understood. There was an old African proverb Dottie had read one day that said, “After a man eats, he becomes shy.” And Dottie thought of that now with Shelley. Shelley was like the man in the proverb, having satisfied her needs, she was ashamed.  She had confided more than she wanted to, and now Dottie was somehow to blame.

In a later story though we become aware of a change, often there’ll be just a passing reference to the character who inhabited the previous story, one that informs us of what followed on, and gives a kind of quiet closure, in this respect it reminds me a lot of Yoko Ogawa’s stories in her collection Revenge, there is that thread that connects the stories, it creates a little frisson of excitement when you spot it.

It is such a pleasure to spend time within the pages of Strout’s imaginary characters, who move from references into fully formed characters with such ease, this collection had me wondering if one of these characters might push in on her and demand a novel too. Tt wouldn’t surprise me – who is in control here, the characters or the author? I have a feeling her characters have a strong will of their own, and that this book was written to try to keep a few of them quiet, so she could move on to the next story that’s no doubt already brewing.

Anything is Possible recently won The Story Prize (for an outstanding work of short fiction) and a cash award of US$20,000. The judges praised the book for its “subtle power,” and described Strout as:

“a specialist in the reticence of people, and her characters are compelling because of the complexity of their internal lives, and the clarity with which that complexity is depicted.”

Today the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction will be announced (at midnight), it will be interesting to see if this collection will be nominated, I certainly hope that it will be.

Further Reading:

My Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

My Review: The Burgess Boys

Buy a copy of one of Elizabeth Strout’s books via BookDepository

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

There is something so captivating about the voice of Lucy Barton, it made me wish to slow read this novel, as if it were a box of exquisite chocolates that require enormous self-discipline not to finish in one sitting.

Lucy Barton is in hospital after an operation and isn’t healing as she should, the very kind Doctor doesn’t understand why, so keeps her under observation.

That Lucy finds so many people whose path she crosses in adulthood so very kind or nice, is a telling detail.

Her husband, of whom her parents disapprove and have never met, arranges for her mother to visit Lucy, they haven’t seen each in years, but over five days she sits near her bed and they chat as if those years of silence hadn’t been.

It’s as if Lucy Barton relives a part of her childhood as an adult, but transplanted to a safe, uneventful place, a room in a hospital where they will not be interrupted, except by the occasional nurses.

Then my mother and I talked about the nurses; my mother named them right away: “Cookie,” for the skinny one who was crispy in her affect; “Toothache,” for the woebegone older one; “Serious Child,” for the Indian woman we both liked.

Lucy now lives in NY, her parents are from the rural town of Amgash, Illinois, life for them, including her siblings hasn’t changed much, Lucy however liked to stay after school near the warm radiator, doing her homework, reading books. She read her way through school and out of their town, almost by accident, into university and onward to marriage, children and writing stories.

Her turning point she wonders, came through a chance encounter with a woman in a dress shop, a writer, in whom she recognises something she can’t quite articulate. She attends one of her workshops and though intending to work on a novel, begins to write sketches of scenes of her mother visiting her in hospital, these are the pages she shares in her private meeting with the author, who gives her this advice:

Then she said, “Listen to me, and listen to me carefully. What you are writing, and what you want to write,” and she leaned forward again and tapped with her finger the piece I had given her, “this is very good and it will be published. Now listen. People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, ‘abuse’, such a conventional and stupid word, but people will say there’s poverty without abuse, and you will never say anything. Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother that loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

Through her writing, her listening to her neighbour Jeremy speak of the necessary ‘ruthlessness’ of the artist, of Sarah Payne’s writing advice to take any weakness in her story and address it head-on, Lucy Burton moves her life and her narrative on from its traumatic past, to a new empowered beginning.

But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go – to Amgash, Illinois – and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think.

Absolutely loved it, hypnotic, slowly affirming a life that can grow and change and evolve out of traumatic experience, that past narratives don’t define future stories, that love is as hardy as a seed that grows out of rock, not impossible to bloom even in the harshest of circumstances.

My Name is Lucy Barton was long listed for both the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. She has since written a follow-up book Anything is Possible set in that rural town of Amgash, Illinois, seventeen years after she left it.

The long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, will be announced on Thursday 8th March, let’s wait and see if Elizabeth Strout’s newest book will make the cut.

Purchase a copy of My Name is Lucy Barton at Book Depository

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

Like many readers, having enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s previous book that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, I was looking forward to reading her next work. Rather than referencing Olive Kitteridge, which this book has very little in common with, The Burgess Boys arguably has more connections with Strout’s own life, growing up in small towns in Maine, studying law and moving to New York city.

The Burgess BoysJim and Bob Burgess also have little in common except that they both studied law and moved to New York, one achieving notoriety, the other not. Their younger sister Susan never left Shirley Falls, Maine; they are now all late middle age, the trajectory of their lives influenced early on in childhood when Bob(4) and Jim(8) witnessed the death of their father as the car they were in, with their younger sister in the back, rolled forward down the family driveway and killed him.

Two thirds of his family had not escaped, this is what Bob thought. He and Susan – which included her kid – were doomed from the day their father died.

The two boys leave their hometown to pursue careers in New York city and have little to do with their sister, until a thoughtless act by her teenage son Zach, lands him in trouble with the police and the law and looks set to incite racial tension among the citizens of Shirley Falls and their Somali immigrant community.

He thought of all the people in the world who felt they’d been saved by a city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked its way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder saying, Whatever is happening, Bob Burgess, you are never alone.

Prior to the family drama Jim’s star was in the ascendant, he could do no wrong, however an indulged ego wins few favours long term and his good fortune risks changing course.

It is a story of family ties, separation, isolation, of fear and its consequence and the challenges of an evolving community, how newcomers don’t always bring out the best in their hosts, requiring as they do, new understanding and acceptance.

It was an uncomfortable start for me I admit, taking on a story that portrays a small town’s varying and little embracing of an immigrant community and the committing of a disrespectful act against it’s religious beliefs is fraught with danger in itself. Topical perhaps, but difficult to accurately or sufficiently portray balanced points of view.

Somali USStrout presents the family dilemma and while giving them an audible voice, keeps somewhat at a distance from the community Zach Burgess has upset, though at least she does not go so far as to incite the aggrieved community to inflame their response. But the story lacks something for having touched on a community in such an indignant way and failing to give them much of a voice,  the one exception stretching the imagination in authenticity a little too far.

Abdikarim, who had attended only because one of Haweeya’s sons came running to get him, saying his parents insisted he come to the park, had been puzzled by what he saw: so many people smiling at him. To look him straight in the face and smile felt to Abdikarim to display an intimacy he was not comfortable with. But he had been here long enough to know it was the way Americans were, like large children, and these large children in the park were very nice.

Not knowing much about Somali immigration to the US, I found these two articles helpful, particularly the former in it’s comparison between US and European immigrants.

What Makes Somali’s So Different? – an interesting article by Michael Scott Moore on the subject of Somali immigrants to the US.

A ray of hope – Somalia’s Future – an analysis by The Economist in Feb 2012 on the future within Somalia itself.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy (ARC) provided kindly by the publisher via NetGalley.