The Burgess Boys
by Elizabeth Strout came highly recommended - not least by a profile of this writer sent to me by a friend, Fascinating! Here was a writer – a mature woman, a member of the American liberal elite – who only really started to write novels in her early sixties and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize: very encouraging for those of us over forty who are still making our way.
The complex nature of contemporary American society - with its fluidity, its urban/rural dichotomy, its sophisticated myth of equality, its multi-faceted racism, its strange innocence – is the background for this complex, well-worked novel. As with all good novels the importance of this only really becomes evident to the reader on reflection and with further thought after enjoying the writing, the characterisation and the prose of this insightful writer.
Luckily, reading on holiday provides the very time and place for just this. This is the season for reading and reflection. And this novel has been worth it.
There is something very American about the size and texture of this novel. It is long, as heavily worked as a carefully crafted tapestry. The action is rigorously observed with a carefully woven mixture of empathy and sympathy. The human truth is very much in the detail – in the mannerisms and preoccupations of the individual; in the passage of time marked by the changing colours and weather and in both town and country; in the meticulous fashion that the writer details even secondary characters and makes them alive in that world.
Born in the small rural town Shirley Falls in Maine, the Burgess Boys are really the Burgess Siblings – two brothers, the aptly named Jim and Bob, and their bitterly unhappy sister, Susan. On the periphery is Jim’s wife Helen who willingly spent teenage years in the bosom of this diverse family. Bound together as adults these four weld together a notion of a common childhood constructed from very different memories.
Susan stays with her son Zach in Shirley Falls while Jim and Bob grow up and move on to professional life in in hectic bustling, neutral New York. Jim is the successful one, the Golden boy, admired and loved by his sister and brother as well as his fellow lawyers. Bob has some moderate success in law in the city but is the vulnerable one; he drinks too much and living on the edge of despair at his wasted life. He is the character most well realised here
One shock in the early narrative is the way both Jim and Susan continually berate Bob, even as adults. The terms jerkoid, retard, bozo, cretin and slob-dog flow from Jim’s mouth like black rain. Susan adores Jim but looks down on Bob, perceives and treats him as a failure even though he persists in coming to her aid in what seems like her doomed life.
As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that the siblings’ late mother who set this poison of casual verbal abuse to drip down the generations.
It slips down to Susan’s son the numb, unhappy Zach, alienated and confused, who commits what is seen as a hate crime in their small town,
In the background are the moving tectonic plates of American society – the breakdown of industry, the changing significance of religion, the migration of the young, the disturbing influx of a community of Somali immigrants, seeking refuge from violence and destruction in their African homeland.
At the centre of this the novel is the impact of these changes in the closed rural town and the bustling city; and how the Burgess Family deals, or doesn’t deal with it. This then is the engine of this elaborately constructed novel. Strought’s prose takes the narrative forward smoothly from place to place, from voice to voice in a deceptively easy fashion.
This is very well researched novel. One running theme is the existence and impact of racist perceptions and the difference in these attitudes between city and rural communities. Occasionally, though, one is struck by the fact that instead of inhabiting the hearts and minds of many of her characters, Strout has dutifully read their histories, profiles, letters and psychological files.
This is never more so than with the Somalian character Abdikarim Ahmed, who is accorded a direct point of view in this narrative. Somehow I couldn’t believe this writer was inside the heart and mind of Abdikarim Ahmed,
For a time I thought the novel was going on too long. But then, as the novel upped its pace it became well worth persisting with, to become acquainted in this fashion with a slice of the American if not the Somalian state of mind.