Next up in my Man Booker longlist quest (I’m not going to be able to read all of them before the shortlist announcement, but I’ll do my best!) was My Name is Lucy Barton. I hadn’t read any Strout before but had only heard good things. Also – another short-ish book at 191 pages.
This book is a masterclass in storytelling. Lucy is a writer, telling her story with the benefit of distance, looking back to the mid-1980s and a period of nine weeks which she spent in a New York city hospital. Following a routine operation to remove her appendix, Lucy is struck down by a mysterious illness, never diagnosed, that keeps her bedbound for weeks on end. Her husband has a phobia of hospitals and so avoids visiting. Her two young daughters, five and six, are brought to the hospital by a family friend but otherwise Lucy is quite alone.
The story is centred on the arrival of Lucy’s mother and the five or so days they spend together. The pair have been estranged for years, partly due to Lucy’s parents’ refusal to accept her husband, son of a German prisoner of war. It is he who called Lucy’s family, paid for her mother’s ticket, presumably out of guilt that he cannot be there for his wife. She appears one day when Lucy wakes, sitting in a chair by her bedside, sleeping there as she keeps vigil. They talk, reminisce about people from Lucy’s hometown of Amgash, Illinois, drawing us into their memories of Lucy’s upbringing.
A series of vignettes bring Lucy’s past to life. Memories are made hazy through childish eyes, incomplete or contradicted as the pair chat and compare their recollections. Lucy’s family were poor. So poor that, until she was eleven years old, Lucy lived in her great-uncle’s garage with her parents and her sister and brother, only gaining access to the hot water and flush toilet of the house after his death. She recalls children telling her, ‘your family stinks’, a teacher telling her sister that ‘being poor was no excuse for having dirt behind the ears, no one was too poor to buy a bar of soap’, being locked in a truck in lieu of childcare when her siblings are both at school and her parents are working.
Lucy is a lonely woman. She tells us so, but it is also evident that she feels alone, not part of anything. She is estranged from her family, the beginning of the severance occurring when she wins a scholarship to college, instantly becoming the most educated member of her family. It is the reactions of others that push her out: being teased by a college lover, her mother-in-law, about her background, her style. It is when she meets Sarah Payne, an author, in a shop, that she finds an outlet and begins to feel comfortable with herself.
I’m not entirely sure why I loved this book so much. Perhaps it is the little glimpses into Lucy’s life. I think that we all like confirmation that most of us feel insecure at least some of the time. As a writer, I identified with Lucy’s creative writing workshop experience. This eventually develops into a career which allows Lucy to break free from her ailing marriage. For me, this is a book that I could read over again, just to enjoy the effortless prose, and I would be very surprised if this doesn’t make the shortlist.
Other reviews of the Man Booker longlist: