Review of My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

The voice that has been created for Lucy Barton is direct, spare and extraordinarilymy-name-is-lucy-barton-elizabeth-strout powerful. There’s a hopeful innocence to the tone of Lucy’s voice during the days she spends in hospital, like that of a child lost in an adult’s body, a child that still craves the parental love that she feels she never received.

In the 1980s Lucy had to stay in hospital for a few weeks due to complications after having her appendix out. As her husband had an aversion to hospitals he arranged for Lucy’s mother to stay with her for a few days. Lucy is surprised as it has been years since she has seen her mother. The reasons for this are gradually drawn out as Lucy reflects on her complicated relationship with her mother.

Lucy recalls her tough childhood in Amgash, Illinois. Her family were impoverished and there was not enough to eat. Lucy and her siblings were bullied because of the poor state of their appearance and their mother was prone to violence when her children crossed her. We learn why Lucy hates being cold and how ignorant she felt about the world outside the family home due to not having any books in the house. There are also darker memories that Lucy is afraid to confront at first, memories that she has never been able to express, memories that made her feel isolated.

Lucy cherishes the time with her mother in the beginning. She is like a dry riverbed, grateful for any droplet of affection as her mother keeps her entertained with the safe topic of neighbourhood gossip. Amidst the gossip are moments of reflective truth shared between mother and daughter, which prompt Lucy to contemplate other areas of her life. Strout touches on the sense of isolation within every person Lucy has known. As Lucy’s self-awareness begins to rise she realises that no one can ever really know what another person’s experience of the world is like, despite how confident they may appear on the outside.

Great writing does not have to be complex. To write simply and eloquently while reflecting deeper truths that resonate on many levels requires a high level of skill.  Strout is finely attuned to the undercurrents beneath what people say and what they mean, and writes about the complexity of family life with a fearless level of wisdom. For me My Name is Lucy Barton encapsulates everything I love about literary writing, reading this novel is a life enhancing experience and Strout is a truly great writer.

I bought my copy from Waterstones.

Published by Penguin.

Follow the author on Twitter: @LizStrout