‘My Name is Lucy Barton’, Elizabeth Strout

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I bought this book for my Kindle after reading a short synopsis on The Guardian after the book was longlisted for the Man Booker, and quickly decided it was a book I would love.

Love it I did, and I’ve since bought a hardback copy for my mother. This is one of those books you just can’t deny how good it is – it leaves you thinking long after you *tap* to the final page!

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My Name is Lucy Barton further cements Pulitzer Prize-winning Elizabeth Strout’s reputation as a powerful storyteller, as she weaves a tale focusing on the concepts of home and childhood within one heroine revisited by the past.

The eponymous narrator of the novel was raised in Amgash, Illinois and is now a writer prompted to reflect on her childhood during a 1980 stay in a hospital bed in New York with a mysterious infection. Lucy Barton is visited by her mother for five days during her stay – so far, so ordinary, but she has not seen her mother for years and has not seen or heard from either of her parents since marriage.

Lucy has reinvented herself in her adult life from the girl she recalls growing up with the family but her memories of her childhood reveal a backdrop of extreme poverty and neglect, all recollections which come vividly during her mother’s visit. There is so much to say to this parent, who refuses the offer of a bed and instead sleeps on a chair during her visit in a dedicated show of parenthood, but both women circle around what they can’t say and discuss local gossip and make up nicknames for the nurses to pass the time.

She might be a writer, but Lucy struggles to articulate many of her childhood experiences, instead telling the reader she had no familiarity with magazines, TV or music until she was an adult. She describes how her experience of reading books influenced her career choice as an adult, “they made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” It is that constant theme of loneliness that is pervasive throughout the novel, all through the descriptions of a young Lucy, her adult attachment to her doctor and her satisfaction to have her mother there talking about the most inconsequential of events during her illness.

Strout describes how Lucy’s siblings are both damaged by their upbringing – her sister carries great anger, and her brother lives at home, only reads children’s books and sleeps next to pigs. Lucy’s hints at her troubled childhood include references to her veteran father’s episodes suffered after returning from the war and detail how the children were often hit completely without warning or provocation. One troubling recollection describes how she can’t even hear the word ‘snake’ after a parent locked her in a truck with one in early childhood.

It doesn’t seem like the reader will ever get the full story of Lucy’s youth, and it always seems like there is more that meets the eye than violence, hunger and isolation. During her mother’s visit, Lucy’s life now is not discussed and little is said about her 5 and 6 year old daughters, her family and friends or even her career. But Lucy’s mother sensed when her daughter’s first child was born without even being told, and Lucy is noticeably uplifted by her mother’s attentions, writing “I was so happy. Oh, I was happy speaking with my mother this way!”

There is the sense that Lucy is now acknowledging something that has been missing from her life, that complicated and sometimes heartbreaking relationship between mother and daughter that our heroine details – “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you… It was all right.” Her mother is a loyal companion, and Lucy makes it obvious that it is a miraculous feat for her to have made it all this way to stay with her.

It emerges that Lucy has had counselling to deal with her past, but it is through the lens of writing and with strength brought about by distance that she finally records the story. In her memory of the five days, we hear about the failure of her marriage, we hear about her friends, her doctor, her experiences, a neighbour who dies of AIDS and a teacher named Sarah Payne. She achieves clarity of vision through her writing, and comes to understand with Sarah that when it comes to recording her story, the only one she will ever have, if she is protecting herself, she is not telling it properly.

And there is no protection in this novel, only simple honesty which Lucy describes herself as recording, despite her own struggle with memory and struggle with communicating her past. While Sarah Payne’s wisdom that she only has one story rings true for Lucy, it is also true that while there might just be the one story, it is possible to tell it in many different ways, each way of telling giving the reader something a little bit more to piece together in that bigger picture.

 

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