Elizabeth Strout (2016) My Name is Lucy Barton.

I’ve a tendency to read short books like this quickly. I should have reviewed it quickly too, when it was fresh baked in my mind. I thought the last line in the book was ‘My name is Lucy Barton.’

Wrong. On the same page, (three from the end). ‘But this is my story.’ A first-person account of her life.

‘And yet it is the story of many. It is Molla’s story, my college roommate’s. It may be the story of the Pretty Nicely Girls. Mommy, Mom!’

The last line reads, ‘All life amazes me.’

The narrator is an oddity, everywoman, who tells the stories of every women. Lucy Barton is not a closed book the reader finds, but a successful author. What makes her successful is the attention, the love, she gives to other people’s stories. She models herself on an author she meets in New York, Sarah Payne (get it pain).

Payne offers Lucy Barton (and other would-be writers) nuggets of wisdom about writing. If I were to use a big, little, word I’d call it subtext.

Issues of class and gender are woven into other people’s stories. Virginia Woolf’s maxim that every woman needs “a room of one’s own” to write pretty much covers it. Money matters. Lack of it leaves the narrator terrified she might need to go home.

‘This is the 1980s’ she tells us. And in some ways it’s also the story of New York, up until the planes crash into the Twin Towers. It touches, for example, on issues of Vietnam and on the AIDs epidemic. But it might well be early twentieth century, her mum had never been on a plane until she visits Lucy and her father fixed farm machinery. Dirt poor, they were isolated by poverty and they smelled. Even locals looked down on them. Her father, a former second world war soldier, we come to recognise, suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Sins of the father passed to the sons. Her brother took to sleeping in a barn and reading to pigs awaiting slaughter and her sister married, unhappily, it seems, as quickly as she could. Lucy escaped that aching loneliness that writing found a way of filling.

The book begins with Lucy confined to a hospital for nine weeks. ‘A simple story, to get her appendix out.’  

Coherence and the backwards and forwards motion of time are difficult for any writer to master. The Man Booker Prize 2016 nominee, written by Elizabeth Strout makes it seem easy. Read on.    

Tara Westover (2018) Educated.

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Tara Westover’s Educated has a tag-line from Barack Obama on the cover, ‘a remarkable memoir’ and in terms of sales I doubt there was a bigger selling book in 2018.  I’m a voracious reader but it’s been a long time since a book kept me up to the wee small hours. I’d nibbled at Educated online, reading the first few pages, before getting the paperback and devouring almost 400 pages in one large gulp.

It’s the kind of book I like, because it’s about people like us. Dirt poor people. That never really had a chance.

And I like books about religion that gives the reader an insider account of what it’s like to be saved or damned. Here we have Jeanette Winterson’s sombre yet joyous debut Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, or Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood and middle-class snobbery and sense of entitlement in the vicarage and in the village where her grandparents lived.  Here we have another force of nature with a very simple rule.

‘The whole world was wrong; only Dad was right.’

Tara’s dad ‘Gene’ was Mormon, patriarch of his family of five sons and two daughters of whom Tara was the youngest. Audrey, her sister, was older and most of her brothers seemed like adults to her.

Where the family lives is important for a number of reasons. For the reader it hankers back to a simpler life of living off the land and her mother a herbalist and self-taught midwife adds to that impression of living in the promised land.

Westover’s lyrical prose describes the farmstead with a nostalgic longing.

The range had other mountains, taller more imposing, but Buck’s Peak was the most finely crafted…My father called her the Indian Princess. She emerged each year when the snows began to melt, facing south, watching the buffalo return to the valley…All my father’s stories were about our mountain, our valley, our jagged piece of Idaho.

For her father seasons are short and long. Before the coming of the snow he’s got to make enough  money to feed his family, keep the homestead running and put enough aside for the End of Days, or the Days of Abomination in Mormon text. It’s a frantic race Gene intends to win.

Tara is nine, or thereabouts, when the memoir begins. She was home-birthed and home-schooled, never seen a doctor or nurse and, until they are issued with a Delayed Certificate of Birth, the state of Idaho and the federal government don’t know she, or her younger siblings, exist.

Home-schooled Tara shows is an exaggeration. The boys worked in the scrapyard outside their window, sorting, cutting and welding scrap metal into sellable chunks and helping their dad in construction. And although Gene was a firm believer in  patriarchy and the division of the sexes, men’ s work and women’s work, Tara, around the age of ten, also found herself in the scrapyard, scrapping, like the boys. Her dad taught her that wearing a hat against the stifling sun slowed her down and gloves made her hands soft. She’d grow callouses and be better off. Metal whizzed by her head and hit her in the stomach. An employee lost a finger and the boys had their scrapes. At an age when parents are running their children to school and sitting parked outside the school gates, Gene is telling Tara to get into a skip of metal and sort it while he tips it, she can jump out. She gets away with a busted and bleeding leg, but she’s alive.

Close calls don’t count. After the Feds raided Waco there is enough military firepower buried around the hills to bring down a helicopter and start a war. A thousand gallon tank of petrol is buried to fuel the vehicles when the End of Days come.

God tested them, of course. When the winter snow came and Gene became almost comatose, her mother said ‘he was like a sunflower’ they piled into the car and across snowy states to visit his mother in the desert and in the sunshine for him to heal. When Gene said they were ‘hitting the road’, he didn’t mean it literally.  But in the snow they hit a utility pole. Nobody, apart from Gene seemed to emerge unhurt from the wreck. Her mother, for example, suffered ‘raccoon eyes’ associated with brain damage, but hospitals were the work of the devil, so she suffered and self-medicated with herbs.

They hit the road again the following year in a snow storm. Gene’s argument that the angels protecting them could fly quicker than the sixty miles per kilometer they were doing on unmarked road flipped to a different story in the end.

Sara escapes, as we know she will, through education –it’s there in the title.  But at what price? She tries to prove to herself her father is bipolar.

In a Virginia Woolf essay she argued that women were constrained by the dominant ideology of womanhood, of being a wife and mother. Par, for the course, here, where Westover recognises in her extensive reading the Mormon practice of polygamy was god’s way of rewarding men by handing out new wives to the righteous like sweeties.

More taboo for Woolf was constraint on women’s bodies, woman having passion. For Woolf this ‘constrained her from telling the truth about [her] own experiences as a body’.

Educated is also a love story to herself, her body, a coming-of-age story. The wolf here is her brother Shawn. When she is a little girl, she is sweet. But when she hits adolescence and thinks about boys and wearing lipstick Shawn treats her like a slut and re-educates her. In a word, he’s a manipulative psychopath and even a Mormon bishop classifies him as such.

There’s a kind of naivety here of the truly desperate. If I do this…If I didn’t do that…I shouldn’t have done this. Shawn knows how that narrative goes. You read about the Shawns of this world in court reports that outline how they beat and murdered their partners for making the wrong kind of stew. For being out late. For talking to another man.

Here Westover hopes her family will take her into the fold if they find out how evil Shawn really is, how he played the same games with Tara’s sister, Audrey and if her father Gene, the great white patriarch, knew, really knew, he would shun Shawn, cast him out of the family and into everlasting damnation. The lies we tell ourselves are often the cruellest. That’s the moral of this epic narrative.

Best seller for good reasons. Beautifully written. Beautifully told and bold, but really, like father, like son. The foolishness of man is here in all its glory.

 

William Boyd (2002) Any Human Heart.

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Sometimes we get caught up in hype and say things like Any Human Heart is ‘unforgettable’. But I’d forgotten I’d already read this book. There was something vaguely familiar about The Intimate Journals of Logan Mountstuart (LMS) 1906-1991 when the reader is told he dies of a heart attack and on his tombstone has chiselled Escritor, Writer, Ecrivain.

It’s the bit in between those two dates that interest us and LMS has a Zelig like ability to span continents and mix with all the great writers and artists of the day, for example, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group in London. He kisses Evelyn Waugh at an Oxford soiree. The latter grabs his groin, but LMS might have been like Waugh, a former public school boy but now decidedly is practicing heterosexual sex with his best friend’s girlfriend. He meets F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joyce and Hemingway in Paris and, later, the exiled American during the Spanish Civil War.

Picasso gives LMS a sketch, which he later sells to make good the final days of his former lover that was there on the page with him. He hobnobs with royalty and shows how spiteful, treacherous and miserly the Duke of Westminster and Mrs Simpson really were (as expected).

LMS was an art dealer in New York when the avant-garde painters were selling canvases for crazy money and poets such as Frank O’Hara were emerging, with bitterness and wit and not enough money.

LMS married for the third and last time in New York. The entry for June 1957 has him meeting with his psychiatrist Byrne and he asked:

what persuasion he was – Freudian, Jungian, Reichian, whatever. None of the above, he said. I’m basically a good old-fashioned S&M man. S&M? Sex and Money. He explained: in his experience, if you were not clinically ill – like a schizophrenic or a manic depressive – then 99 per cent of his patients’ neuroses were generated by either sex or money, or both.

LMS proves the case in point, fleeing New York for his London flat after having sex with, ‘Monday,’  a sixteen or seventeen-year-old minor who passed herself off as being his dead son’s grieving girlfriend and aged 19 or 20, one of which proved to be true enough for a statutory rape charge.

LMS saw man walking on the moon, he poetically stepped outside to look rather than watching it on television and got involved as reporter in the Biafran War.

And surreally he found himself involved and carrying sticks of dynamite in a suitcase filled with old clothes for the Baader-Meinhoff gang. These are the bits of the book I remembered, finally.

The wisdom of the fictional man is on the page, a remembrance of reader to reader or writer to writer. After fleeing Britain after Thatcher is elected (foreseeing the offering up of the poor to the rich) he flees to the French countryside to squeeze in one more doomed love and offers a guide to style and life while trying to write a work of fiction, Octet. The entry between 1986-1988:

Reading Nabokov’s Ada, an intermittently brilliant but baffling book – an idee fixe on the rampage, leaving readers stunned and exhausted behind. I have to say as an admirer of style – a loaded word, but actually best thought of as a synonym for individuality – VN’s mannered artfulness, his refusal to let a sleeping word lie, becomes more and more like a nervous tic, than a natural, individual voice, however fruity and sonorous. The studied opulence, the ornament for the sake of ornament, grows wearing, and one longs for a simple, elegant discursive sentence. This is the key difference: in good prose precision must always triumph over decoration.

LMS’s journal in Any Human Heart achieves that individuality, that style and the voice is one you believe in.  As an avid reader (with a poor memory) William Boyd is indeed a great artist. Let’s not forget that there is nothing baffling about this book but its brilliance.

 

Jill Bialosky (2015 [2012]) History Of A Suicide my sister’s unfinished life.

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This book left me cold. I read an extract of the story of these sisters in The Observer a while back, one living and the other dead. I was intrigued.  I know what I’m supposed to feel. What I’m supposed to say. But it feels a bit like someone leaning over the garden fence and saying yada, yada, yada and I’m saying yeh, yeh, yeh. That’s true. You’re right. I wish I’d thought of that.

In the first act of J.B.Priestley’s An Inspector Calls stasis is undermined in this interchange:

GERALD [laughs]: You seem to be a nice well-behaved family –

BIRLING: We think we are –

In sum, we have the Anna Karenina principle. All happy families are alike. All unhappy families are unhappy in their own way. In ‘Opening Words’, each chapter is Bialosky’s book are bite sized, she draws her family in Cleveland in 1970 for the reader. Kim, who commits suicide is the youngest. Laura, Cindy and the author Jill are more than a decade older than their sister. Their father, a Jewish immigrant died when they were infants and their mother re-married an Irish Catholic. Kim father didn’t last. He’s the villain of the piece who left them in relative poverty, and also left their mother for another woman. Kim was lost baggage, left behind, but with her mother and three surrogate mothers in her elder sisters. She lacked a father figure to nurture her. It belittled her. Set her back in  ways that didn’t affect her sisters. I’m not sure why.  That’s one of the arguments the book makes. Jill finds confirmation in Dr Sheidman prognosis, an amateur Herman Melville fan and eminent sucidiologist who quotes Moby Dick to her:

There is no unretracing progress in this life…we do not advance through fixed gradations. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally.

As the Inspector says:

what happened to her then may have determined what happened to her afterwards, and what happened to her afterwards may have driven her to suicide. A chain of events.

I don’t have a problem with eternal ifs. Temporality, is always dateable. Jonathan Lear, in Radical Hope, quotes Heidegger – a time when. A time when Kim made her last phone call to her sister Jill. A time when Jill lost her baby in the first trimester. A time when Jill lost her second baby, snatched away from life. A time when Kim, with her mum sleeping upstairs,  shuts the garage door and starts the car engine. A time when the boy that’s being paid twenty dollars to cut the grass hears the car engine idling and opens the garage door to carbon monoxide. A time when two police officers stand at the foot of her mother’s bed and tell her there’s no hope. Her youngest daughter is dead.

I don’t have a problem with no hope and its causal link to suicide or even references to Sylvia Plath, Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, William Styron and Darkness Visible. It seems rather obvious. Those without hope seek a way out. Life gets in the way. But what I found myself doing was saying no.

Jill, for example, says, ‘I should have told her that I once loved a boy, too.’ She has an annoying habit of making statements like that and interjecting drama with the added clause, ‘too’. That would have saved her Inspector?

In ‘Last Dance’ as author she constructs a narrative. ‘In my mind’s eye…Kim…Dabbed her eyes with musk. Wore her favourite jeans and a sexy black top, convinced she would see Alan’.

Alan was Kim’s on-off boyfriend. He also killed himself. It’s part of the narrative, his death and her death. Romeo and Juliet. But I don’t buy it. It’s too pat. Life’s too messy.

‘But he wasn’t there. Not him. Not anyone. Longing consumed her.’ I find that very Mills and Boons.

‘Maybe someone leaned over the bar to talk to her.’ Maybe they didn’t, I interject.

‘Hey, you look cute. Wanna do a line in the bathroom?’

If an Inspector called how many suspects would he find with such bland conjecture? For every ‘maybe’ or ‘possibly’ I overwrite with maybe not. When history become a made-up story then is it history? Or something else? I’m unconvinced. Life is for the living. Perhaps that is the lesson of the Jewish Shiva mourning period. Perhaps that is the lesson of religion. I’m not sure. I’m never sure. Not in the grief-stricken way that Jill Bialosky is. I’m not sure. Not sure.

http://unbound.co.uk/books/lily-poole