In this short but complex and fulfilling novel, Lucy Barton, a writer, recounts a time many years earlier when she had to stay in hospital, in NYC, for nine weeks. Initially she goes into hospital to have her appendix removed but an unexpected fever follows and she’s confined for longer than expected. Her husband hates hospitals and between looking after their two daughters and working, he has little time to visit Lucy. About three weeks after she’s admitted, Lucy’s mother arrives.
I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.
“Mom, how did you get here?” I asked.
“Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be all right,” she added, in the same shy sounding but urgent voice. “I haven’t had any bad dreams.”
Tentatively, they begin to talk. Initially the conversation’s about Lucy’s older siblings before her mother starts to tell stories of people she knew in the past, moving on to people Lucy knew in childhood.
She talked in a way I didn’t remember, as though a pressure of feeling and words and observations had been stuffed down inside her for years, and her voice was breathy and unselfconscious.
Between these stories, Lucy begins to tell the reader of her upbringing. ‘We were oddities, our family’ she says. Poor, filthy, hungry and isolated; Lucy recalls being struck by her mother on occasion, sometimes for no reason at all. Her mother worked at the local library until she was told they could only hire someone with a proper education and her mother stopped reading. The consequence for Lucy and her siblings was that they grew up in a house without television, newspapers, magazines and books; this affected how they conducted themselves in the world – how do you know how to behave if you’re not aware of how things are done?
Lucy questions how bad things were when she was younger, from the seemingly safe distance of her very different adulthood:
But there are times, too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us manoeuvre through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.
As the book continues, Lucy reveals more about her upbringing and particularly her father who’s cruel and uncompromising. She reveals how she came to be a writer and introduces a question about how much she’s telling us is ‘true’. She questions the validity of memories and, by talking about the writing process and the guidance she gained from another writer, raises ideas of stylised accounts. The novel’s as much about the things her and her mother won’t discuss as the things they do.
My Name Is Lucy Barton is a sharply observed novel about the relationship between a mother and a daughter, the events which shape us, and how reliable our memories are. It’s one of those novels in which both nothing and everything happens. The plotting is seamless – Strout makes the interweaving of Lucy’s past and current life look easy; the prose is taut, every word earning its place.
Despite her Pulitzer win in the USA (for Olive Kitteridge) and her Bailey’s/Orange Prize nominations in the UK (shortlisted for Amy and Isabelle, longlisted for The Burgess Boys), Strout isn’t well known in the UK, I suspect My Name Is Lucy Barton will be the novel to change that. If you haven’t read Strout’s work, I highly recommend everything she’s written and My Name Is Lucy Barton is an excellent place to begin.
Thanks to Viking Books/Penguin for the review copy.