My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout review – powerful storytelling

An exploration of the love between mother and daughter is both affecting and wise

There is a moment in My Name Is Lucy Barton when the protagonist, struggling to find her voice on a creative writing course, is advised: “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You will have only one.”

In Elizabeth Strout’s deeply affecting novel, the eponymous heroine endeavours to make sense of her story in spite of the vagaries of memory, the power of collective denial and the masterful ability of those closest to her to shroud her emotional needs in misunderstandings and repression.

The novel – narrated by the protagonist from the vantage point of the future, both with the benefit of hindsight and the unreliability of memory – takes places over five nights in the mid-1980s. Lucy Barton has been in hospital for three weeks with an undiagnosed illness after having her appendix removed. She is separated from her husband and two daughters, aged five and six, whom she misses desperately. Unexpectedly, her mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, arrives at her bedside. Lucy is now a successful writer, but her mother’s presence reignites memories of her childhood – of poverty, abuse and social exclusion: “We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois.”

The descriptions of Lucy’s formative years are visceral and heartbreaking. Strout’s lack of sentimentality creates a powerful image of a childhood steeped not just in financial hardship, but in cultural and emotional deprivation: Lucy’s is a childhood devoid of books, magazines, TV, neighbours. The sense of isolation is palpable and Strout creates a tragic portrayal of a lifetime’s loneliness: “Loneliness was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It is this loneliness, Lucy confides to the reader, that prompted her to become a writer: “Books made me feel less alone… I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”

You wonder if Lucy’s medical condition, undiagnosed throughout the novel, might be psychosomatic; in another setting, she could be the perfect subject for a Freudian case study on hysteria. Not only does her illness afford her nine weeks of daily visits from a kindly Jewish doctor “to whom I felt a deep attachment”, it brings her mother rushing to her bedside, with the possibility not just of reconciliation, but of cure: “Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.” With her mother holding vigil, Lucy is relieved of the insomnia that has plagued her in hospital: “That night I slept without waking, and in the morning my mother was sitting where she had been the day before.”

Lucy may be hoping for an emotional reunion, but her mother embarks on a series of anecdotes about people they once knew – friends, relations, acquaintances – whose failed marriages and emotional breakdowns are recounted like cautionary morality tales. Strout conveys immense poignancy in the solace Lucy manages to take from these interactions nonetheless: “I was so happy. Oh, I was happy speaking with my mother this way!”

It is the silences, the ellipses in conversations that articulate the emotional truths of relationships. Lucy’s mother is unable to tell her daughter she loves her except “when your eyes are closed” and there is a quietly devastating tragedy about the way Lucy endeavours to make peace with this: “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you… It was all right.” And yet this is a novel about love: about the complicated, complex love between a mother and daughter.

My Name Is Lucy Barton confirms Strout as a powerful storyteller immersed in the nuances of human relationships, weaving family tapestries with compassion, wisdom and insight. If she hadn’t already won the Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, this new novel would surely be a contender.

My Name is Lucy is published by Viking, £11.99. Click here to order a copy for £10.39


Hannah Beckerman

The GuardianTramp

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