Wow this is one powerful, yet short novel. I wonder at the author’s ability to convey so much about the relationship between Lucy Barton and her mother.
The bulk of the book looks back to a period in the late eighties, when Lucy was ill in hospital. Her husband who was not at all keen on hospitals makes contact with Lucy’s mother and she comes to visit and stays in the hospital with Lucy telling her stories about people in the Amgash , Illinois, a place that Lucy left as soon as she was old enough. Contact between Lucy and her family has been more or less non-existent for many years and yet, Lucy’s mother doesn’t talk very much about their family, instead concentrating on other’s woes, successes and everyday lives.
It soon becomes very clear that Lucy’s childhood wasn’t a happy one as she reminisces about events from long ago, but Elizabeth Strout has not made her protagonist a victim, not at all, in fact the narrative about the poverty, the neglect and abuse is all the more powerful for the short yet powerful insights delivered almost entirely without blame. This is not a character looking for sympathy, rather a person who wonders at the route her life has taken especially when she eventually becomes a novelist of some note.
We also get some insight into Lucy’s marriage although she continually pronounces that this book, the one she was meant to write, is not the story of her marriage there are enough hints that the reader is able to spin an entire story from the bits we do hear about.
Like me you may start this book and feel that it is a gentle read, an introspective look at one woman’s life. Albeit a life that started without much in the way of advantage but you’d be wrong. As with Lucy’s marriage, there is almost as much said by the unsaid, as there is by that which is explicitly, yet gently presented to us. There is the yearning for a mother’s love, for her children who visit her in hospital with a friend, the stark reality of joining the world after an extended stay in hospital in the present. While the memories take her back to being an outcast amongst her peers, a child who had no references to what was happening in the outside world until she went to college and as a result, part of her always felt that difference keenly, although she would deny it. I found the subtlety of the storytelling, at times almost too tragic to read – but I’m so glad I did! This is an excellent portrayal, full of overt gentleness but with a rawness at the centre that took my breath away.
I’m very grateful to the publishers, Penguin Books UK, who gave me an advance copy of this book to read. My Name is Lucy Barton will be published on 4 February 2016.