Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

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My Name is Lucy Barton is a short and quite gripping novella that was long listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

It tells the story of a midwestern girl, Lucy Barton, now living in New York. She is married and has two children, but is ill in hospital, and mostly alone: her husband has a phobia about hospitals and rarely visits. He pays for the protagonist’s mother to fly in and care for her daughter, and the book mostly concerns the short period in which the girl’s mother sits by her bedside and looks after her.

As she lies in hospital and talks with her mother, Lucy Barton reflects on her life, and especially on her childhood. The book is really a series of these memories retold in short sharp chapters of brief, yet vivid and detailed description.

From the hospital window Lucy can see the Chrysler building, an icon of New York city and a reminder of the distance between herself and her childhood home. The mother has never flown before and has no knowledge of, or interest in modern culture. Her own husband was psychologically damaged in the the second world war, and never recovered, inflicting the consequences of his own guilt and pain onto the next generation.

Lucy grew up in cultural and financial poverty, living in a cold garage and a victim of bullying at school.  She was also the victim of abuse, and we are told that she was regularly locked into the car whilst her parents worked. There are more explicit comments, but these are not developed in detail.

From the dialogue and commentary it is clear that Lucy’s mother knew nothing of these incidents, or if she did was in denial. Lucy would like to ask, but never has the courage.

But this is a book about love and about dignity. We see the powerful love Lucy has for her mother, a love that its clearly reciprocated. The book revolves around other moments of tenderness and compassion, including the doctor who calls regularly, even at weekends, and goes easy on his medical bills. There are others in the mid-western town, more fortunate than Lucy’s family, who show her compassion and sympathy, including a teacher who chides the class for laughing at her, insisting that all children must be treated equally and with kindness.

We also learn about the fates of some of Lucy’s childhood friends, their selfishness or foolishness, their broken marriages and disappointments. This is a book in which human failings are writ large but with compassion and sympathy.

We are given brief glimpses of Lucy’s life away from the mid-west: relationships that failed or never matured, her own marriage and her love for her children, her encounter with a professional writer, an inept creative writing tutor who nevertheless didn’t manage to stop Lucy becoming a professional writer herself.

In the end Lucy has grown into an independent and confident writer, a modern, metropolitan woman.

Strout is not judgemental, and there is sympathy here for even the most unsympathetic of characters – her damaged father, the old schoolfriend who abandoned her husband, or the self centred and fashion conscious lecturer in art with whom she had a brief fling as a student. The criticisms are subtly communicated, the judgements clear but understated.

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About Grace – Anthony Doerr

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I chose this book because I recently read Doerr’s second book, All the Light We Cannot See, and it was the best book I have read in several years.  I was hoping for more of the same.

About Grace tells the story of an awkward and unheroic character, David Winkler, who for some reason has  premonitions, or dreams that come true.  So the book opens on a plane journey when the protagonist, realising that a bag will fall from the luggage locker, warns the owner, and is first ignored then, when the bag falls, scorned by her for having deliberately left the locker open!!

Later in a supermarket in Alaska he meets a young married woman in a similar fashion – he knows she will knock a magazine to the floor, so rushes to help her pick it up.  Even so she walks away, though later he is able to meet her again.  They have an affair, and run off to Ohio, where Grace is born.

At this point Winkler begins to have recurring dreams about the baby, Grace, drowning in a flood.  In his vision he sees himself holding the dead baby above the flood waters.  Eventually the fear is too great.  When the rains come in floods, Winkler runs away, leaving his family to their fate, hoping that because he won’t be there, the dramatic image of death will not become reality.

He crosses America, takes a berth on a freight ship and ends up in the West Indies where he spends the next years.  Here Winkler makes friends with locals including political refugees from Chile who have a daughter called Naaliyah: she becomes almost a surrogate child for him.  At one point he has similar dreams about Naaliyah drowning; he becomes obsessed, and follows her everywhere, much to everyone’s annoyance, but eventually saves her from this death.

Winkler tries to contact his wife, Sandy, to discover Grace’s fate, but receives no reply.  Eventually Naaliyah, inspired by Winkler, who is a scientist, gains a scholarship to a university in Alaska to study entomology.  Shortly after, Winkler decides to return to the USA to try to find Grace.

After a library search facilitated by a man in a wheelchair, and armed with the names of all the Grace Winklers in the USA, Winkler sets off on a tour of the states, visiting each Grace in turn, but none are his daughter.  There is a crisis when his last visit results in accusations of theft and damage.  Winkler escapes across the open plains, becomes lost and nearly dies.  Stumbling onto a road, he hitches a lift to Alaska, where he finds Naaliyah.  He spends the winter at her research centre deep in the wilderness of the Yukon.  The final section of the book sees his return to Anchorage and the denouement of the story of Grace.

I don’t normally give such detailed accounts of the plots of books, but this one is pretty weird and seemed worthy of some detail.  It’s a very odd book.  I suppose it’s about Winkler finding Grace, and so that in itself is a pretty fine metaphor, suggesting there is a theme of morality in this book.  And after all Winkler did run off with a married woman, did fail to live up to his responsibilities as a father and husband, and did hurt several innocent people, so I guess he needed Grace, as we all do.

On the other hand the whole book is based on a pretty weird and whacky premise and that in itself is a big question mark against a novel that seems to preach psychological realism.

Winkler is a scientist – a meteorologist actually.  He is obsessed with the beauty of snowflakes and the nature of hydrology, of the water cycle.  Naaliyah is inspired by his scientific knowledge and becomes  an entomologist.  In Alaska she is breeding insects on a remote experimental station.  The book contains lots of descriptions based around these two scientific disciplines. So the scene before the flood, and the scenes in the Yukon, are fraught with images of water cycles and snowflake and frost, of death and hibernation.

As the story reaches its denouement Winkler begins a correspondence with his wife’s former husband in the hope of finding Grace.  A few quotations here will show you how Doerr attempts to pull all these ideas and images together.

Collecting snowflakes and admiring their beauty, Winkler claims the ones in the wild are bigger and more real than in the lab – like wild animals that make zoo animals seem like shadows.  Here he encounters the heart of life – its essential beauty and integrity, as if even snowflakes have a soul.  But there is more.  It’s not so  much a science for him he says, it’s the light, the way it absorbs sound.  The way we feel that the more that falls, the more we are forgiven.

He goes on: dreams are a ladle dipped, a bucket lowered. The imagery of water continues: dreams are the deep cool water beneath the bright surface; the shadow at the base of every tree. Now his only dream is to find Grace.

Doerr is clearly a great writer with a fantastic imagination and a beautiful turn of phrase.  He uses imagery extensively to explore themes and ideas, and to show the way that Winkler is alienated from life by his own self consciousness, by his fear and inability to engage.

For me About Grace was not as good as his second novel All the Light We Cannot See.  The plot focuses on the question of what has happened to Grace, and this was not as compelling an issue as the wartime dynamic in Doerr’s second book.  Nevertheless I think it is a book that would repay a closer reading, a book that is ambitious, well written and carefully constructed.

 

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which was long listed for the Booker prize in 2016, tells the story of a group of friends who meet at an Ivy League college, then live in New York.  It follows their lives from post college days to the deaths of two of the protagonists years later, with flashbacks to earlier life events.

The main focus of A Little Life is on Jude, a gifted lawyer working at the most financially rewarding levels of the New York legal profession, but with a life blighted by a history of child abuse.  He is unable to recover emotionally from his early experiences, some of which are recounted in detail, and is at the centre of this group of four bright and articulate New Yorkers who each go on to achieve success – one as an artist, one an interior designer, the third a successful film star, and of course Jude himself, as a lawyer.

We see aspects of the life stories of all these characters, who take turns in narrating sections of the novel.  Each time, whilst ranging more widely, the main narrative focus is on the story of Jude, a foundling brought up in a monastery where he was beaten.  He ran away, only to find himself in even more dangerous and abusive relationships.  Finally Jude finds a compassionate social worker who rescues him from his tormented life, and recognising his intelligence, sends him off to an Ivy League college.

Does that sound like a fairy tale?  In some ways this book is as melodramatic as that, straining out and examining the dramatic extremes of human emotion and human relationships: a world of extreme cruelty and pain, of eternal loyalty and love.

There is quite a chasm between the earlier experiences of Jude, and his more comfortable later life, when he is in possession of a house in the country, a flat in London and regular trips to Paris or India.  In some ways these sections are quite hard to identify with, quite alienating, especially in the light of the recent Brexit vote, and the popularity of Trump,  both of which have been attributed to some extent to the feelings of the economically excluded.  In this sense the book does seem to be about the most and least privileged experiences of America, ignoring wide swathes in the middle.  I wondered whether this contrast was a literary device intended to emphasise the degradation of Jude’s earlier experiences.  In the end the universal and triumphant career successes of these four characters did seem a little improbable.

Nevertheless,  A Little Life is well written and in some ways a compelling read.  The main character is a figure of extreme sympathy and compassion.  A victim of emotional and sexual abuse, and infected with diseases and ill health inflicted on him by his abusers, Jude is nevertheless a completely moral character, indeed haunted by the guilt associated with his ill treatment.  As a friend he is always reliable and caring, and the relationships he builds with colleagues and friends are enduring and full of love.  In a moment of utter cruelty he is run over by a car and this inflicts physical disabilities on top of the already severe mental injuries he has suffered.  In the terms of the novel it seemed that the continuing physical pain this caused was a metaphor for the deeper hurts in Jude’s psyche: the pain and discomfort was eternally present and Yanagihara spared no words in describing it in all its horrors.

Hanya Yanagihara writes with clarity and precision and this is a very long and detailed novel.  Dialogue is extensive, and at times quite mundane, and Yanagihara invites us to share the increasingly rather exclusive worlds of these wealthy New Yorkers in language that is evocative, and at times littered with emotive and interesting metaphors.

A Little Life is a pretty tough read – it is not only very long, but its subject matter is painful and difficult.  It’s almost too depressing, though there are elements of hope in the love and compassion Jude shares with friends, and with an old university tutor who finally adopts him, allowing Jude to experience for the first time the love of a family.

It’s not a book you should read without a strong stomach, some stamina, and a good deal of sympathy with liberal and metropolitan attitudes to human relationships.

The Guardian – review

The Rum Diary – Hunter S. Thompson

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Now a film starring Johnny Depp!  Hunter S. Thompson is a legend and The Rum Diary is quite short, so it seemed a good first taste of this writer for me.

I enjoyed it.  It was an easy read – a book about drink and loss of innocence that stands comparison with Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald.

Paul Kemp has moved to Puerto Rico to work as a hack at the Daily News.  He hangs out at Al’s, drinking and eating burgers – an American abroad, I suppose!  It’s a very male world of competing egos and repressed violence. Kemp drinks too much rum – that seems the most preposterous element of the novel.  His poor liver!    There is a love interest in the form of Chenault, petite, blonde and wayward.  Scenes of reckless abandon on tropical beaches alternate with dingy news rooms, owners teetering on bankruptcy.  We see drunken parties, gratuitous violence, an unpleasant experience in a foreign jail.

Hunter S. Thompson’s characters are amoral, hedonistic.  They are spent forces, flotsam drifting at the edge of the American hegemony. Innocence is lost, though Kemp does have some moral qualms, a fleeting lifting of the blinds, before the novel ends with the lonely sound of time passing.

Daily Telegraph on Hunter S Thompson