My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

There is something so captivating about the voice of Lucy Barton, it made me wish to slow read this novel, as if it were a box of exquisite chocolates that require enormous self-discipline not to finish in one sitting.

Lucy Barton is in hospital after an operation and isn’t healing as she should, the very kind Doctor doesn’t understand why, so keeps her under observation.

That Lucy finds so many people whose path she crosses in adulthood so very kind or nice, is a telling detail.

Her husband, of whom her parents disapprove and have never met, arranges for her mother to visit Lucy, they haven’t seen each in years, but over five days she sits near her bed and they chat as if those years of silence hadn’t been.

It’s as if Lucy Barton relives a part of her childhood as an adult, but transplanted to a safe, uneventful place, a room in a hospital where they will not be interrupted, except by the occasional nurses.

Then my mother and I talked about the nurses; my mother named them right away: “Cookie,” for the skinny one who was crispy in her affect; “Toothache,” for the woebegone older one; “Serious Child,” for the Indian woman we both liked.

Lucy now lives in NY, her parents are from the rural town of Amgash, Illinois, life for them, including her siblings hasn’t changed much, Lucy however liked to stay after school near the warm radiator, doing her homework, reading books. She read her way through school and out of their town, almost by accident, into university and onward to marriage, children and writing stories.

Her turning point she wonders, came through a chance encounter with a woman in a dress shop, a writer, in whom she recognises something she can’t quite articulate. She attends one of her workshops and though intending to work on a novel, begins to write sketches of scenes of her mother visiting her in hospital, these are the pages she shares in her private meeting with the author, who gives her this advice:

Then she said, “Listen to me, and listen to me carefully. What you are writing, and what you want to write,” and she leaned forward again and tapped with her finger the piece I had given her, “this is very good and it will be published. Now listen. People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, ‘abuse’, such a conventional and stupid word, but people will say there’s poverty without abuse, and you will never say anything. Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother that loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

Through her writing, her listening to her neighbour Jeremy speak of the necessary ‘ruthlessness’ of the artist, of Sarah Payne’s writing advice to take any weakness in her story and address it head-on, Lucy Burton moves her life and her narrative on from its traumatic past, to a new empowered beginning.

But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go – to Amgash, Illinois – and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think.

Absolutely loved it, hypnotic, slowly affirming a life that can grow and change and evolve out of traumatic experience, that past narratives don’t define future stories, that love is as hardy as a seed that grows out of rock, not impossible to bloom even in the harshest of circumstances.

My Name is Lucy Barton was long listed for both the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. She has since written a follow-up book Anything is Possible set in that rural town of Amgash, Illinois, seventeen years after she left it.

The long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, will be announced on Thursday 8th March, let’s wait and see if Elizabeth Strout’s newest book will make the cut.

Purchase a copy of My Name is Lucy Barton at Book Depository