At some point the narrator becomes a writer and, in an early writing class, she shows the beginnings of this story to her writing teacher who says (almost exactly at the half way mark, as if this is the perfect fulcrum around which the tale is to be told): "This is a story of a man [the narrator's father] who has been tortured every day of his life for the 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 who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly."
The writing teacher encourages the narrator to be honest. But this is problematic because this is also a story about abuse. But the abuse is never detailed. We get the feeling that there might have been something that happened in the first half of the book but these are only vague suspicions. At the half way mark the writing teacher confirms these. But then the narrator dodges the bullet. We know about her husband dressing up in female clothing and parading through their village; this is a family secret she has told only to her husband. Is this, and the subsequent bullying of the brother, the abuse? But later, when her mother tells her about a man who had a breakdown and then walked around the house masturbating, the narrator says: "I had never before heard ...of this Thing - as I called it to myself - happening as it had happened in our home." Two pages later she talks of "the disgust I had had for him [her father] most of my life" and when her father dies her response is "Daddy, stop it! Stop it, Daddy!" But the clearest indication that something happened is one night when she is with her mother in the hospital and her mother touches her foot through the sheet: "I squeezed my eyes shut - Don't you fucking cry you little idiot - and I squeezed my leg so hard I almost could not believe how much it hurt. Then it was over." This sounds like a relived experience of abuse and the next morning the doctor notices the mark on her leg but doesn't say anything. The trouble is that these clues really don't tell us very much about the abuse she suffered and who inflicted it upon her. So I'm not sure how much the writing teacher's advice about honesty was heeded.
The book is unusual in the extent to which it talks directly to the reader and the way it rambles, reminding me a little of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford.
- "I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived" which is to some extend how she meets her writing teacher so this seems to be a metaphor for writing helping us to cope with the darkness.
- "In spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me."
- "It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it's the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down."
- "It has been my experience throughout life that the people who have been given the most by our government - education, food, rent subsidies - are the ones who are most apt to find fault with the whole idea of government."
- "The women only took little steps while the men danced with much commotion."
Books by Elizabeth Strout reviewed in this blog include:
January 2020; 191 pages