GREAT READS FOR MAY, 2017
My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout.
Lucy Barton is languishing in hospital in New York, the victim of an infection that has turned a short stay for an appendix operation into a hugely expensive nine-week-long endurance test for her, especially when the family friend entrusted to look after her two daughters brings them to visit her with grubby faces and dirty hair. Even worse, her husband hates hospitals and each visit by him is an obvious feat of will: the situation is not conducive to promoting rest and the return of strength necessary for Lucy’s discharge.
Until she wakes one day to find an unfamiliar figure seated at the foot of her bed. At Lucy’s husband’s request and subsequent expense, her mother has flown from her small town in Illinois to spend time with Lucy – which she literally does, not leaving her bedside for the five-day duration of her visit. The nurses offered to provide a cot for her, but Lucy’s mum preferred the chair, she said.
Mum’s visit would be the norm, indeed expected in any extended family, except that Lucy’s family were not given to normal displays of emotion; indeed it was imperative for the survival of Lucy, her sister and brother that they ask for nothing, expect nothing – and when they got nothing, not to be surprised. The family’s poverty was abject, even though her parents worked every daylight hour to keep the family fed, and because they all lived in a garage, the family was also known as dirty as well as poor, labels that, had Lucy stayed in that town, would have branded her for life.
Fortunately for Lucy, she had secret dreams, dreams of being a writer which were nurtured by a sympathetic teacher who was instrumental in helping her get a scholarship to a college in Chicago: Lucy is on her way, ready to leave her brutal past behind. She gradually transforms her life, falling in love with William, her husband, and giving birth to her beloved daughters. She has success as a writer, too, which she hopes will make her parents proud, but who would know? Their reactions to her academic success and marital stability are decidedly low-key; she has not seen them for years and they have never seen their grandchildren. Therefore, her mother’s presence at her sickbed, welcome as it is, is a surreal experience for Lucy. Why is she here?
Ms Strout has constructed, as always, a story of great power encapsulated within the pages of a very slim volume. She describes the rocks and shoals of familial love – and conflict – painfully and honestly. We readers cannot turn away from the many truths revealed, nor should we want to.
Initially, I was confused by Lucy’s revelations, some of them huge, that were dropped like bombshells casually into the narrative; it was only at the end that it was announced that this is the first book of a series called ‘Anything is Possible’. Presumably, more will be revealed of the bombshells (and their craters) in subsequent volumes, for Elizabeth Strout is a writer sublime. My introduction to her was ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (see review below) – I became her Biggest Fan (along with the many millions of others) after reading that gem, and I haven’t changed my opinion. FOUR STARS.
AN OLDIE BUT A GOODIE!
Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout.
Ms Strout’s eponymous protagonist is an exceptional woman. She has been a high school mathematics teacher in the small town of Crosby, Maine for many years and has a wonderful empathy for her students, helping many of them with advice that in several cases is crucial: she makes a positive difference to many lives, including those she chooses as her friends – and they are few, for Olive Kitteridge does not suffer fools gladly.
Sadly, she regards her own husband and son as wanting: her frustration with their good natured compliance with her whims, their longing for her approval and more importantly, a peaceful, loving atmosphere, turns her into a bully, ashamed of her actions but unable to stop her tyranny.
Ms Strout tells Olive’s story in a series of beautifully constructed short stories; each one features her either as a major influence on the main character in the chapter or as a remote adjunct, a mere mention, as in the story devoted to the talented pianist at the local restaurant, who drinks to disguise her perpetual stage fright, and has more than her share of secrets and regrets.
Olive attends the funeral of one of her former pupils, happily married to his high school sweetheart until his untimely death from cancer but once again, secrets are revealed at the wake; the wife’s cousin had a fling with the dear departed, mentioned it to the grieving widow after a few drinks too many – ‘because I thought you knew!’ Needless to say, the poor widow knew nothing until that moment, and it falls to Olive to try to save the situation, saving with her innate, intuitive diplomacy the poor widow’s face and self-respect.
Which begs the question: why is she unable to apply these essential, enviable gifts to her personal life, which as she gets older polarise her more from her loved ones?
Ms Strout provides the answers effortlessly in this wonderful little book, which deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2008. She has just released another novel ‘The Burgess Boys’ to glowing reviews, and as I hadn’t read anything of hers before, I thought I would make Olive’s acquaintance before going on to meet the Burgess brothers. And how glad I am that I did, for ‘Olive Kitteridge’ is an unforgettable character; outstanding, outrageous, a person of lion-hearted courage and lily-livered cowardice; an Everywoman who has had to endure great grief and pain, but is still able to transcend her sorrow to make sense of her existence. Olive is simply superb, and I hope you will meet her soon. SIX STARS!
Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien
‘In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life’.
So begins Jiang Li-ling’s account of the great tragedy she suffered at the age of ten in 1989. Her father Kai died in Hong Kong, after leaving his wife and daughter in Vancouver. It was an utter mystery as to why he should return to China as he had obviously intended, before ending it all in China’s capitalist satellite. Li-ling and her mother know that prior to escaping the Communist regime he had been a renowned concert pianist, a person of great gifts and the favourite of Madame Mao – until she, like so many millions of others, fell from grace. When that happened, it was time to flee – like so many thousands of others. But why try to return?
To complicate the puzzle, Li-ling’s mother is asked by a mysterious correspondent in Beijing if she could care for her daughter Ai-ming, in the country without the correct papers and needing shelter: Ai-ming’s father was Kai’s beloved music teacher, a brilliant composer in his own right and, before all the purges and ‘re-education’ of useless intellectuals and those with bourgeoisie dreams, a person who lived entirely for music: tragically, he spent many years of his re-education building crates, then became adept at assembling radios after requesting a shift to Beijing to further his precious daughter’s education. Now the daughter has arrived in Canada, a victim of and shocked witness to the horrors she experienced in the student revolt in Tiananmen Square, where the Glorious People’s Liberation Army murdered thousands of their own countrymen – because they dared to protest, to demand democracy.
Canadian author Ms Thien has constructed an epic, a huge sweeping history of Mao’s China from the time of his overthrow of the KuoMintang led by Chiang Kai-Shek (exiled to Formosa), his ascension to power in 1949, his many and varied attempts to turn China from an agrarian nation to an industrial one (starting a famine in which it is estimated between fifteen and forty-five million people died), his scorning and re-education of the intellectual elite, and his carte blanche approval of the Red Guards, young fanatics and zealots who literally follow every one of his whims to the letter. The Chinese people have given up one kind of serfdom for another. They are all meant to be glorious revolutionaries, but the revolution smacks of the same old poverty and fear.
In a series of flashbacks, Li-ling’s father Kai’s youth is revealed – his time in a Jesuit orphanage and his adoption by a distinguished music professor who enrols him at the Shanghai Conservatory, where he meets Sparrow the composer who is his teacher. Sparrow is named by his mother for that common little bird who attracts no attention – she rightly believes that in the current climate it serves no-one well to have a pretentious name. And she is right. Sparrow survives longer than most because of his ability to blend anonymously with his surroundings, but like everyone else, he and his family eventually suffer terrible losses from which they will never recover - not least betrayal: in the interests of his own survival, Kai has become a Red Guard.
Ms Thien’s story of one extended family’s attempts to survive within the whirlwind of revolt and repression is magnificent. Her characters undergo many travails, but their forbidden sustenance is always the same: stories and music, the balm for all troubled spirits. SIX STARS.