Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement. (Kirkus review)
I've never been a great reader of contemporary fiction, preferring the tried and tested reprints road. That's changed a bit since I started co-editing Shiny New Books, but even now I tend to read and review books by familiar names, such as, in the latest issue, Maggie O'Farrell's This Must be the Place and Rose Tremain's Gustav Sonata. However, when I read the recently announced Booker Longlist and realised I'd barely heard of any of the writers on it I decided it was time to venture out into unknown waters. I was happily enabled to start this project by the kind donation of some Audible credits. Many of the books on the list are not yet available in audio, but this one was so this is where I started. And oh my goodness what a place to start. If this doesn't make the shortlist I'm giving up reading (well, not really, but you see what I mean).
My Name is Lucy Barton was published earlier this year, and I had read a couple of reviews of it, but remembered little of what I'd gathered from them, so really I came to it with little knowledge of what sort of book it is. And what is that, you may ask? Well it's a book partly about writing, partly about families and motherhood, partly (perhaps chiefly) about the nature of love.
Lucy Barton is a young married woman, mother of two small girls, who has ended up spending many weeks in hospital with a mystery infection. She doesn't have many visitors - even her husband (with whom her relationship is clearly troubled, though this is something she is not going to discuss) rarely comes to see her - and she is desperately lonely...
Had anyone known the extent of my loneliness, I would have been embarrassed. Whenever a nurse came to took my temperature, I tried to get her to stay for a few minutes. But the nurses were busy. They could not just hang around talking. About three weeks after I was admitted, I turned my eyes from the window late one afternoon and found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed.“Hi, Lucy,” she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. “Hi, Wizzle,” she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.
“Mom, how did you get here?” I asked.
“Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion, for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be alright,” she added, in the same shy-sounding but urgent voice. “I haven’t had any dreams.”
Her mother stays for several days, refusing offers of a bed and just sitting in the chair, taking catnaps. They talk a bit, but truly what goes on between them is never expressed. There's tremendous love here, something that they can never vocalise, but also many memories, some of which the mother seems to have completely blocked out. Lucy is taken back to memories of her childhood, one of great poverty, deprivation, and probably abuse -- though this last is never foregrounded, it's hinted at and certainly suggested when Lucy's mentor gives her a positive critique of her writing and tells her to ignore negative criticism: 'People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, abuse'.
Whatever the hidden truths about those far off days, the wonderful thing here is that Lucy has no anger or bitterness about her past, harsh though it clearly was. Indeed she is capable of great love, not only for her husband and children and her difficult, uncommunicative birth family but also for her wonderful, kind-hearted doctor, for her neighbour Julian, for Sarah Payne, the woman who encourages her to write. Even the deprivation she suffered has contributed to the work she now pursues with intensity:
My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself – secretly, secretly – very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)
This is a very short novel - only two hundred pages, or in my case four hours of listening. But it's a little jewel of a book, not only for the wonderfully compressed truths about the way people communicate with others but also for the great beauty of Strout's simple, spare, immensely telling prose. The Audible version was beautifully read by Kimberley Farr, and I loved every single second of it. I'll be looking out for more from this wonderful author. If you haven't read this one I suggest you do so very soon.