A deftly wo­ven, un­flinch­ing and beau­ti­ful story

In re­vis­it­ing Lucy Bar­ton’s mem­oir, El­iz­a­beth Strout de­tails, in pre­cise, lu­mi­nous prose, mo­ments both deeply hu­man and oth­er­worldly Any­thing Is Pos­si­ble

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Danielle McLaugh­lin

By El­iz­a­beth Strout Vik­ing, £12.99

‘Holy moly,” says Patty Nicely, as she reads the mem­oir of her former neigh­bour Lucy Bar­ton, “Oh my gosh.” Patty is one of the Pretty Nicely girls, a name that will be fa­mil­iar to read­ers of El­iz­a­beth Strout’s last novel, the mag­nif­i­cent My Name Is Lucy Bar­ton. “It made me feel bet­ter,” Patty later says of Lucy’s book, “It made me feel much less alone.” “Oh no,” war-dam­aged Charlie Ma­cauley coun­ters, “No, we’re al­ways alone.” In Any­thing Is Pos­si­ble, Lucy Bar­ton re­turns to the house where she grew up in Am­gash, Illi­nois, to visit her brother Pete and sis­ter Vicky, hav­ing not seen them for 17 years. The book com­prises in­ter­con­nected nar­ra­tives: vivid, in­ti­mate de­pic­tions of the lives of Lucy, her sib­lings and her cousins, Abel and Dot­tie, among oth­ers. The chap­ters – or sto­ries – each one ab­sorb­ing as an en­tity in it­self, com­bine to present the broader story of a fam­ily, a town, a so­ci­ety. It’s a deft, un­flinch­ing and beau­ti­ful weave, rem­i­nis­cent in its struc­ture of Olive Kit­teridge, for which Strout won the Pulitzer Prize.

The book opens with the un­rav­el­ling of a pri­vate mir­a­cle. Tommy Gup­till, once a jan­i­tor at Lucy’s high school, be­lieved that on the night his barn burned down he re­ceived a sign from God. This gift has sus­tained him all his life but he moves from cer­tainty to doubt, “like a tyre be­com­ing flat”, when he re­counts the ex­pe­ri­ence for Pete Bar­ton.

The quandary of what to be­lieve, in var­i­ous man­i­fes­ta­tions, also be­sets other char­ac­ters. An­gelina Mum­ford’s el­derly mother left her mar­riage of 51 years to live in Italy with a younger man. For An­gelina, the feel­ing of not be­ing able to be­lieve things is “the worst feel­ing of all”. Else­where, An­nie in Snow-Blind is forced to re-eval­u­ate a dearly held ver­sion of her past. An actor, she has for years “used the image of walk­ing up the dirt road hold­ing her fa­ther’s hand, the snow-cov­ered fields spread around them” as a means of bring­ing tears to her eyes on- stage, “for the hap­pi­ness of it, and the loss of it”. Now, as she con­fronts dif­fi­cult rev­e­la­tions, she won­ders if it even hap­pened.

Strout ex­cels at han­dling dark sub­ject mat­ter with grace and com­pas­sion. This book con­tains much hope. In pre­cise, lu­mi­nous prose, she exquisitely de­tails mo­ments of height­ened aware­ness and un­der­stand­ing that man­age to be at once both deeply hu­man and oth­er­worldly.

When Patty Nicely re­calls sit­ting on the post of­fice steps with Charlie Ma­cauley, she re­mem­bers “how it seemed out­side of time”. “It was the tall white wind­mills that came to her mind. How their skinny long arms all turned, but never to­gether, ex­cept for just once in a while two of them would be turn­ing in uni­son, their arms poised at the same place in the sky.” And there’s the poignancy of the meet­ing be­tween Lucy and her brother and sis­ter, Pete Bar­ton’s qui­etly mo­men­tous: “Vicky, we didn’t turn out so bad, you know.”

There are sharp ob­ser­va­tions on class, some­thing, ac­cord­ing to Lucy’s cousin Dot­tie, that “no­body ever talked about in this coun­try be­cause it wasn’t po­lite”, and also be­cause “they didn’t re­ally un­der­stand what it was”. Dot­tie, raised in poverty, ex­pected to be watched in shops and asked to leave, long af­ter she stopped be­ing poor. But she no­tices how a guest in her B&B, the wife of a soon-to-be-re­tired doc­tor – “No one can re­ally make a liv­ing in medicine any­more” – has been raised “to speak about her­self as though she was the most in­ter­est­ing thing in the world”.

Linda (an­other of the Pretty Nicely girls) and her hus­band dis­cuss the “slightly slutty, kind of work­ing-class look” of their house guest. Most com­plex in this re­gard is Abel Blaine, who as a child scav­enged for food in dump­sters. His shame about this comes later, when he tells his wealthy wife, who is hor­ri­fied and asks him not to tell their chil­dren. Now Abel has an­other new shame to con­tend with: the shame of hav­ing money.

Other shames also feature: shame re­lat­ing to sex, and abuse, and deeds done in war. There are par­tic­u­lar shames vis­ited on women, like Dot­tie, in sixth grade, brought to the front of the class in her stained dress to be told that no­body was too poor to buy san­i­tary pads. An­nie in Snow-Blind feels like she’s in­side a sausage and “the skin of the sausage was shame”.

And yet, there’s a won­der that is al­most mys­ti­cal in the way An­nie en­gages with the world. “The phys­i­cal world with its dap­pled light was her ear­li­est friend, and it waited with its open-armed beauty to ac­cept her sense of ex­cite­ment that noth­ing else could bring.”

Ev­ery­day lives

Strout draws us deep into the ev­ery­day lives of her char­ac­ters. “My good­ness,” Mary Mum­ford says to her vis­it­ing daugh­ter, “An­gel, that is won­der­ful gos­sip, my word.” The reader, too, is privy to the tri­als and hu­mil­i­a­tions of the peo­ple of Am­gash, as well as their kind­nesses, as they per­se­vere in their at­tempts to bet­ter un­der­stand them­selves and oth­ers. “We don’t know what any­thing means in this whole world,” Mary Mum­ford de­clares. Yet the hope that per­me­ates the book pulses strongly in the clos­ing pages, when Abel ex­pe­ri­ences “not fear, but a strange ex­quis­ite joy, the bliss of things fi­nally and ir­re­triev­ably out of his con­trol, un­peeled, un­peel­ing now”.

In this fi­nal story, Gift, Abel opens his eyes to “the per­fect knowl­edge”, but where, ex­actly, is he headed? It’s a per­fectly pitched end­ing to a book so finely at­tuned to hu­man­ity’s flaws, vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and mo­ments of tran­scen­dence.

Danielle McLaugh­lin is the au­thor of Di­nosaurs on Other Plan­ets

There are sharp ob­ser­va­tions on class; some­thing, ac­cord­ing to Lucy’s cousin Dot­tie, that ‘no­body ever talked about in this coun­try be­cause it wasn’t po­lite’

El­iz­a­beth Strout: han­dles dark sub­ject mat­ter with grace and com­pas­sion PHO­TO­GRAPH: TODD HEISLER/NEW YORK TIMES

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