Nothing Happens; Everything Happens
Lucy Barton, a woman whose background was one of deprivation, though that is ostensibly now behind her, is a writer.
In Elizabeth Strout’s short, powerful, beautifully written novel, Barton is primarily looking back on a time, some decades earlier, when she was hospitalised as a young mother, for some weeks, after an operation to remove her appendix went wrong.
Inevitably, the look-back – which spools Barton into both earlier memories and also flash forwards, reminds me of Wordsworth’s dictum: ‘poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity’
What is implied in Wordsworth’s dictum, and laid bare in Strout’s book, is that the place for creativity comes not from the unthinking splurge of violent, reactive emotion, but when a certain observation, a certain ability to stand outside oneself, observing what is arising, gives rise to a stripping away of self-indulgence, of mere confessional venting.
During her nine week hospitalisation, she could see New York’s Chrysler Building, from her hospital bed, glittering and beautiful. The view of a kind of panaroma is echoed as Barton’s life, through the spooling back of memory, reveals itself in similar fashion, and individual memories move in and out of glittering focus
A warning: If you are a reader who needs the action-packed, the hyper-aroused emotion as a writer ratchets up the tension for the big reveal, Strout’s lightly, tightly, almost thrown-away reveals may disappoint. She is not a writer who is writing in the literary equivalent of high volume, flashing light shouting.
Much happens of huge import in Lucy’s story, but what is important, for Lucy, as a person, as a writer, is the ability to transform, how to use her life in order to fully be herself. Not in some huge cathartic revelation of being either the victim or the survivor, but in some kind of daily assimilation and growing.
I must say that Strout’s approach, Barton’s approach, to offer these sideways, unexpected, yet totally truthful seeming reveals shocked and resonated far more intensely, far more authentically, than the more obvious, gothic, dramatic arc would have done. Lucy is soft, malleable, empathetic. Lucy is also self-tempered steel.
The bulk of her recollection is the difficult relationship between mother and daughter. This, is seems is the story which the writer Lucy Barton must tell in order to be authentic. Or, as another writer, whom she meets and is influenced by, Sarah Payne, tells her, each writer has ‘one story’, and that is the one that must be told.
Lucy’s story is this:
This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly
So, perhaps a story about the imperfection of all our loving. Lucy tells us, time and again, that this is not a story about a marriage, her marriage. But what Strout is repeatedly doing, brilliantly, is offering little hooks for the reader to get caught on, little snagging burrs that make the reader pause, and think, feel, what is going on here, what is going on beneath what is being said?
I adore writing like this; I have gratitude for writers who allow their readers to form a relationship within the written material. A writer who does not tell me what I must be thinking and feeling, but can delicately strew my reading path with carefully wrapped treasures, making me pause, engage, reflect.
This is not just a book about Lucy. The net goes wider. It is a book about how our lives shape us, wound us, offer the opportunity to strangely mend us. It’s a book about the shaping of memory. It’s a book about gender and sexuality, and it’s a book about how we search in our relationships as a reflection back, a reaction to and from those first relationships: how we were mothered; how we were fathered.
And it’s also a book, most powerfully fierce about creativity, why write?: Or, as Lucy’s shaping literary guide and tutor, Sarah Payne, says:
She said 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
This is a story in many ways of small lives, not the lives of the famed and powerful. It is written with great compassion
I thought, Pity us. We don’t mean to be so small. Pity us-it goes through my head a lot-Pity us all
Elizabeth Strout is a Pulitzer prize-winning novelist, and I am certainly keen to read more of her work, particularly that prize-winning book, Olive Kitteridge
I received this book as a digital ARC from the publishers. Already published in the States it will be available in the UK from February 4th