On my last Friday Reads post I reviewed Hot Milk by Deborah Levy and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien. The first was about a relationship between a daughter and mother, the second about (amongst many other things) the relationship between daughter and father.
This week, I finished reading the entire Booker longlist and realised that my last book fit very well into the theme started above – the relationship between daughter and mother. But My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is also, at a deeper level, about family relationships in general, and about poverty, and marriage. The protagonist, Lucy Barton, is looking back at a specific time in her life when she was in hospital for nine weeks, and her mother came to sit with her for 5 days. She uses her memory of the conversations with her mother over those 5 days to spark off memories of her childhood and comments about her husband and her children.
Lucy is, by the time of her hospital stay, an established author but the effects of her childhood have never really left her, and Elizabeth Stroud depicts these in sharp, uncompromising, unapologetic sentences. The children scavenging for food in dustbins, living in a garage with no heating, growing up without books or television. Her mother’s visit to the hospital is a complete surprise, mother and daughter are estranged, and yet the strength of their relationship is clear:
I was so happy. Oh I was so happy speaking with my mother this way!
There is a dark undercurrent running under the entire book, but although we can guess at what may have happened, it is never said outright. The idea of silences, of things left unsaid, is one of the main themes:
“I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the word I love you. I feel that people may not understand: it was all right”
Then there are the hints of much darker things that we never truly find out, the reason why Lucy’s mother only catnaps (“you learn to, when you don’t feel safe”), why Lucy is so afraid of snakes she can’t bear to hear the word, the exact nature of her father’s “episodes”, which Lucy as a child called “the Thing“. But despite all the darkness, Stroud’s uncompromising text means that it is not a miserable book at all – and the things that shine through are the strength of Lucy’s love for her mother and for her two daughters. Its a lovely book, one I really enjoyed.
Then there was Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh. Another story about family with a dark undercurrent – although in this case the darkness is much more obvious and outright. Another book I really enjoyed – although I don’t think there’s any way you could describe this as a “lovely” book!
Eileen is 24 years old, living in a Massachusetts town and working in a prison facility for juvenile offenders. She lives with her alcoholic and abusive father in a house neither of them make any effort to clean. The relationship between father and daughter is, like the relationship between mother and daughter in My Name is Lucy Barton, complicated. Eileen hates her father with an at times murderous rage, but also gets drunk with him, looks after him.
From the beginning, the reader is told that the book depicts the events over one week, leading up to Eileen’s escape from her small town to New York city. But as she is just in the beginning stage of planning, a young, beautiful woman turns up at Eileen’s work. Eileen is captivated and a chain of events is set in motion that escalate over the course of the week to an entirely unexpected and grotesque ending.
There is therefore a sense of the thriller about this novel – what happens? Why does she leave? But it has been criticised for not being enough of a thriller, not having enough twists and turns or startling climaxes. I disagree, I don’t think that’s the point. The point is not what happens but Eileen herself, in all her oddly compulsive repulsiveness. It’s a character study, rather than a plot-driven novel. Personally, I found the novel different, amusing, unsettling, and always interesting.