It seems as if just about everyone has been reading this book this year, and I, as so often, came rather late to the party. Longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – My Name is Lucy Barton was also hugely popular with readers. It is a novel I have been told by others will make it on to their books of the year list – that’s a lot to live up to, and yes, I enjoyed it a lot but it hasn’t made my end of year list (it seems I have read a lot of superb books this year) – which I shall post tomorrow, if I get my act together. Still, this novel is deserving of all the accolades it has received, I loved the restrained, subtlety of the writing, and was impressed with how much is actually going on in less than 200 pages, when, on the surface there is little plot.
In part, My Name is Lucy Barton is a story of mothers and daughters, though it is also much more than that. It is a story of memory, of how the past shapes us, moulding us to who we become, and it is hard to shake that off.
“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”
Lucy herself narrates the story, she recalls a time, now many years in the past when she was confined to a hospital bed for several weeks. Her husband was left at home with their two daughters. Lucy has been living in New York for some years, since before her marriage, and it has been years since she has seen her mother, who she left behind her in Amgash, Illinois. One day while lying in her hospital bed with its view of the Chrysler building, Lucy wakes to find her mother sat by her bed. For several days, her mother stays with her constantly, refusing offers of a cot bed next to her daughter she takes occasional naps in the chair. Lucy loves just hearing the sound of her mother’s voice, there is comfort in her presence, in hearing herself called by her old pet name.
The two gossip lightly about the people from Lucy’s childhood, and as they talk the memories of Lucy’s poverty stricken childhood return. For many years, Lucy and her family, her parents, brother and sister lived in an unheated garage at the side of an uncle’s house. The children were singled out for ridicule at school. Lucy grew up not really knowing true affection – instead she remembers the terror of being locked in a car while her parents were away from the house. She also remembers with what appears to be great affection, the landscape of her childhood, even claiming to have been able to hear the corn growing in the fields.
“At times these days I think of the way the sun would set on the farmland around our small house in the autumn. A view of the horizon, the whole entire circle of it, if you turned, the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again, as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments. All life amazes me.”
Lucy remembers a time when she was tempted to run up to a stranger in town and ask for help – there were bad things happening in her home. Lucy’s childhood wasn’t a happy one, we gradually get a sense of what a relief her eventual escape was. We also learn about the very different life she had afterwards, marriage, motherhood and her ambition to write. By the time her mother is sat by her hospital bed Lucy has published a couple of stories in a literary journal. Her life as an aspiring writer in 1980s New York, is set against a backdrop of the AIDS epidemic, Lucy has seen the gaunt young men already touched by the disease walking through her neighbourhood.
With this novel Strout acknowledges the complexities which exist within fragile families, while Lucy is comforted by her mother’s presence, there is also an underlying tension. So much unsaid between the two women tells the real story of their relationship.
I have heard so much – on the old booky grapevine the last couple of years about Elizabeth Strout, I’m glad I finally paid attention. I also have Olive Kitteridge on my bookcase waiting, a few months ago, a young assistant in Waterstone’s was so enthusiastic about it I couldn’t not buy it. Judging by this excellent novel, beautifully and subtly written and so astutely and truthfully observed, I have a lot to look forward to with Elizabeth Strout’s other novels.