Monthly Archives: November 2021

Cleanup in Room 401! – The Maid by Nita Prose

book cover

The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time.

Today at work, I found a guest very dead in his bed. Mr. Black. The Mr. Black. Other than that, my work day was as normal as ever.

A totally charming lead, Molly the Maid, Molly Gray, is as dedicated a guest-services employee as any hotel could wish for. She is an obsessive cleaner, determined to live up to the hotel’s stated desire to return every room to perfection every day, and particularly after guests have checked out…well…in the usual meaning of the term. Molly has the misfortune of entering a room where a notorious guest, Mr. Black, a hotel regular, and wealthy wife-beater who has been giving his second, trophy wife, Giselle, a miserable time, has checked out in the other meaning of the phrase. Cleanup in Room 401!

description
Nita Prose – image from her site

It is upsetting, of course, but so is the fact that his shoes are misaligned on the floor, and the room is in need of much more cleaning than usual. She calls down to the front desk, where she can be counted on to be ignored, then sees something so alarming that she faints straight away. Returned to consciousness, Molly phones down to the lobby again, this time demanding that the hotel manager, Mr. Snow, be notified. People soon arrive.

She has some challenges to overcome, both financial and social. When the police get involved in the hotel killing, her problems only multiply. Thankfully there are some who appreciate her, and are willing to help.

Over the course of the book we learn more and more about both the dodgy folks in and about the Royal Grand Hotel, and about Molly herself. It is clear to readers that Molly is on the spectrum, but has found work that she finds satisfying and well-attuned to her proclivities (neat-freak). It has the added element of honoring her beloved, recently-deceased grandmother, who had raised her, following in Gran’s career footsteps. Molly’s penchant for cleanliness stands out in stark contrast to the rather dirty goings on at the hotel. Her social cluelessness makes it tough for her to understand that there is something decidedly rotten about some people she believes to be good eggs. But, while not entirely morally pristine herself, Molly is a decidedly good egg, who values friendship, honesty, and loyalty. Her total recall makes it possible for some of the events of that terrible day to be played back, in detail. This makes it possible to unscramble the mess, at least some, but will anyone listen?

Nita Prose (pen name for Canadian editor Nita Pronovost) has a lot of fun with The Maid. In addition to an appealing, first-person narrator to lead us through the action, she decorates the scenery with nicely chosen colors, patterns, and motifs. Starting with colors, Molly is, of course, Gray. The hotel manager is Mister Snow. Molly’s unpleasant landlord is Mr Rosso (red). Her corrupt supervisor is Cheryl Green (notorious for poaching tips intended for other maids) . An unspeakable ex is Wilbur Brown. One of her co-workers is called Sunshine. Coloring applies to people, themselves. The deader sports red and purple pinpricks around his eyes. Giselle has green eyes. Molly has alabaster skin.

The palette extends to the surroundings, a black and white background against which some colors can glow. As I place a hand on the shining brass railing and walk up the scarlet steps that lead to the hotel’s majestic portico, I’m Dorothy entering Oz. (The Oz notion is picked up later, beyond the visuals, when Molly thinks of Giselle as bridging two worlds.) The hotel features an obsidian countertop on the front desk, marble floors that glow white, and emerald loveseats in the lobby. Molly’s uniform consists of black trousers and a white blouse. The receptionists, in black and white, look like penguins. A white bathrobe is found on the floor of room 401. Giselle stands out for having a yellow (yolk-colored?) purse. One character wears a wine-colored dress with a black fringe. Molly is sensitive to the colors of her world, and they stand out for her like a blood-red rose against a colorless background.

Prose also offers up invisibility as a theme throughout. Molly is invisible to most of the world due to her difficulty with social interactions, and welcomes this invisibility in her job. My uniform is my freedom. It is the ultimate invisibility cloak.; It’s easier than you’d ever think—existing in plain sight while remaining largely invisible; [Mr Black]…often did this—bowled me over or treated me like I was invisible; Discretion is my motto. Invisible customer service is my goal. Molly is always intensely grateful whenever someone makes her feel seen or appreciated. Some find Molly’s invisibility enviable. And she is not the only person at the Regency Grand to be afflicted with translucence.

Eggs offer a bit of focus, as Molly thinks of people as good or bad ones. And there is a very different sort of egg that impacts Molly’s life. Someone preparing eggs for someone else is a very clear symbol of affection.

As an editor, Pronovost is always thinking about how a manuscript fits into a specific genre or how a story might bend reader expectations in that genre. For her own novel, she imagined mixing a misfit-character trope – inspired by the titular protagonist of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine – with a contemporary locked-room mystery inspired by the work of U.K. thriller writer Ruth Ware. Add in a touch of the film Knives Out and the board game Clue, and there is The Maid. – from the Quill & Quire interview

But these are not her only influences. Prose provides some hints to the sort of story we are reading, informing us that Molly enjoys reading Agatha Christie novels. Gran has so many of them, all of which I’ve read more than once. But she adds to that Molly and Gran’s fondness for another mystery entertainment. …we’d eat our meals side by side on the sofa as we watched reruns of Columbo. Expect amateurs to do some sleuthing. No hard-boiled detectives in this one. And you may or may not know who they should be investigating very early in the story.

Universal Pictures picked up the film rights to the book. Academy-Award-nominee Florence Pugh is slated to star as Molly. We all know that options are sold all the time, and most are never actually made. So believe it when you see it.

description
Florence Pugh – image from Daily Actor

While reading, I was totally reminded of a TV series, Astrid et Raphaëlle, as it is known in France, and Astrid in its release on Prime in the USA. Sara Mortensen plays an autistic woman drawn into helping the police solve crimes with her unique talents. I kept picturing Mortensen’s Astrid while reading this book. The show is delightful.

description
Sara Mortensen as Astrid – image from Amazon

Hopefully, you will not wait until all your rooms are in a pristine state to give The Maid a look. It is a charming, engaging, cozy mystery, with a wonderful lead, a colorful cast of supporting players, and an effervescent sense of style. Ideal for kicking back and just enjoying while you recover from the holidays. But be sure to put a coaster under that drink. Someone is going to have to clean that up.

Is now a good time for me to return your suite to a state of perfection?

Review posted – 11/26/2021

Publication date – 1/4/2022

I received an eARE of The Maid from Ballantine Books in return for making a few beds and doing a little vacuuming. Thanks also to NetGalley for calling this book to my attention in their newsletter, and facilitating the download.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads
=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Prose (Pronovost) is a vice president and editorial director with Simon & Schuster’s Canada division.

Items of Interest
—–A wonderful review of a personal-favorite TV show featuring an unusual crime-solving duo – Astrid – I pictured the Astrid of the title as Molly
—–Wiki on Columbo

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

book cover

It was like the beginning of every show where the streets empty and something terrifying emerges from mist or fire.

I passed streams of people with signs, packs, water bottles. I passed squad cars and squadrons. I passed burnt-out stores with walls like broken teeth. I passed a woman with a shopping cart full of children. Down another street, a giant tank was rumbling forward. I turned to get out of the way. Pockets of peace then smoking ruins, then tanks and full-out soldiers in battle gear. I got a cold, sick feeling, and I knew there would be deaths down the road.

Bless me, Father, for I have read. It has been three weeks since I began reading. I am only sorry that I came to the end and could read no more. But I promise to avoid the occasion of reading… this book again, well for a while, anyway.

description
Louise Erdrich – Image from MPR news – by Dawn Villella | AP Photo file

There is magic to be had in the Catholic sacrament of confession. Confess your sins to an invisible presence across a visually impenetrable screen, let the priest know you are truly sorry, promise to do the penance you are assigned (and actually do it. Depending on the severity of one’s sins, this sentence is usually of the parking-ticket-fine level, typically saying a number of Hail Marys and Our Fathers.) and, after a few traditional, if not necessarily magical words, your sins are erased, at least in the eyes of an even more invisible, all-powerful deity. Sins, forgiveness (or not) and redemption all figure large in Louise Erdrich’s seventeenth, and latest novel, The Sentence. The sentences are a bit more significant than the penances doled out in confession.

We meet Tookie, an immature thirty-something, early on. A friend manipulates her into stealing her dead-boyfriend’s body, and bringing it back to her. This bit of Keystone Kops body-snatching has the ill-fortune of involving the crossing of state lines…and the corpus delecti had some extra baggage. Her so-called friend throws her under the bus and Tookie is sentenced to 60 years, by a judge who would be right at home in the Kyle Rittenhouse case. A teacher of hers sends her a dictionary when she is in prison, and Tookie spends her time in lockup reading as much as she can. When she gets out, well short of the max sentence, she goes to every bookstore in Minneapolis with her resume and, finding the one where the dictionary-teacher is working, is taken on. This is not just any old bookstore, but a barely-bothered-to-try-disguising-it simulacrum of Louie Erdrich’s Minneapolis shop, Birchbark Books. With her love of reading, Tookie fits right in, becoming a professional bookseller, and thrives.

description
Birchbark books storefront – image from the BB site

Louise Erdrich has made a career writing about the contemporary world in light of the history of indigenous people, how the past continues to impact the present. One might even say to haunt it. The hauntings in The Sentence continue that focus, but add a more immediate presence.

There is just one problem at Tookie’s job. In 2019, four years after she starts, a frequent-flyer of a customer, both engaging (Tookie’s favorite, even) and very annoying, Flora, has passed on, but does not seem to accept this. She sustains enough mobile ectoplasm to make her presence known as she haunts the bookshop. The central mystery of the story is why. Like many who shop at this Indigenous-oriented emporium, Flora seemed a wannabe Indian. Claims some native blood, and did a fair bit to walk the walk. But she never seemed quite the genuine article to folks at the store. For reasons unknown, Flora’s ghost seems to have fixated on Tookie, bugging her more than other store employees, making noises, knocking books off shelves, and worse.

I had always wanted to write a ghost story. There’s this anomaly, “I don’t really believe in ghosts,” but I knew people who had inexplicable experiences and would not admit—as I would not—to believing in ghosts. I sometimes would take a poll when I was doing a reading and I would ask everyone in the audience if they believed in ghosts. Very few hands would come up. And then I would ask, “Have you had an experience or know someone who has had an experience with a ghost?” and almost every hand would go up. We do have some residual sense of the energy of people who are no longer living. They are living in some way. – from the PW interview

description
A handcrafted canoe hangs from Birchbark’s ceiling – Credit…Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

It becomes a challenge, figuring out how to cope with this unwanted visitor. Why was she there, in the bookstore in particular, and what would it take to get her to leave? Flora had been found with an open book, a very old journal, The Sentence: An Indian Captivity 1862-1883. The book seems to be implicated in Flora’s passing. Tookie tries to figure out if the book had a role to play in Flora’s death. There might be a perilous sentence in the book.

But Flora is not the only unwelcome intruder. Erdrich gives us a look at what life in Minneapolis, and her bookstore, was like (and may be again) paralleling Flora’s growing intrusiveness with the COVID rampup in 2019 and lockdown of 2020. Figuring out how to cope with COVID, both personally and professionally, adds a major layer of challenge. A very present, you-are-there, account of empty streets, closed shops and short supplies, adds to the haunted feel of the entire city during the lockdown. (“This is the first book I have ever written in real time.“)

Sometimes late at night the hospital emitted thin streams of mist from the cracks along its windows and between the bricks. They took the shapes of spirits freed from bodies. The hospital emitted ghosts. The world was filling with ghosts. We were a haunted country in a haunted world.

And then there was George Floyd. Floyd was hardly the first (even in recent history), minority person murdered by police, but what set his example above so many others was the precise documentation of his killing. Also, not alone in current near-history, but the straw that broke the camel’s back, in a way. The outrage that has followed has been driven not just by the phone-videos that now have become commonplace, but by the long history of the same events that lacked such undeniable evidence. The annihilation of native people by Westerners is of a cloth, if at a much greater and intentionally genocidal level. It is amazing there is room enough left for living people with all the ghosts that must be wandering about.

description
The confessional – image from MapQuest – This part of the store figures in the tale

Tookie is our focus throughout, with occasional side-trips to other POVs. Her journey from convict to bookseller, from criminally-minded to good egg, from single to paired up. Hers is a later-in-life-than-usual coming of age. You will like her. She starts out with edge, though, which you may or may not care for.

I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they cannot afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.

In case you are wondering what that final line means, even Erdich is not sure. Tookie may not have been the most glorious flower in the bouquet, but she still has considerable appeal. In addition to being smart and creative, being willing to learn, to grow and to repent her sins are among her finer qualities.

The cast of supporting characters is wonderful, per usual. Pollux is Tookie’s other half, well, maybe more than a half, as he totes along with him an adolescent niece in need of parents. He is a bona fide good man, although he has a bit of a blind spot when it comes to believing in ghosts. One of the truly lovely elements of the book is how Tookie and Pollux express their love for each other through food. His niece, Hetta, is, well, an adolescent, so the emotional interactions can be…um…lively. The shop crew are a fun lot, ranging in age and interests, and we get a look at some of the sorts of customers who patronize a shop that specializes in indigenous-related material. One other supporting cast member is the bookstore’s owner, a famous writer, referred to only as “Louise.” Erdrich has a bit of fun with this, giving herself some wonderful, LOL lines, and letting us in on some of her life under a bookshop-owner’s hat.

description
image from KARE 11 – Credit: Heidi Wigdahl

One tidbit I found interesting from my wanderings through things Erdrich is that she writes to a title, that is, the title is the first element of her books, and the rest is built around that. She first came up with the title for this one in 2014.

I gathered extraordinary sentences. healing sentences, sentences that were so beautiful that they brought people solace and comfort, also sentences for incarcerated people. – from the Book Launch

At some point the weight of her accumulated material justified beginning to flesh it out. This happened in 2019. I did not find any intel on just how many titles she carries about with her at a given moment, or what was the longest gap between title idea and deciding to write the book.

Bottom line is that when you see the name Louise Erdrich on a book, you can count on it being an excellent read. You can count on there being compelling contemporary stories, engaging characters, and a connection with the history of indigenous people. You can count on there being some magical realism. In this one, there is a powerful motif of sins in need of forgiveness. Mistakes need correcting, penance needs to be done, and redemption is a worthy, if not always an attainable goal. The Sentence asks how we can come to grips with the ghosts of the past, and cope with the sins of the present while mass-producing the specters of the future.

description
Protesters gathered at Chicago Ave. and East 38 th Street in South Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd – image and text from Minneapolis Star Tribune

At the end of the sacrament of Confession, the priest says, “I absolve thee from thy sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” If only forgiveness were all that was needed. Read two literary novels, one thriller, a memoir and a non-fiction, and sin no more.

Many books and movies had in their plots some echoes of my secret experiences with Flora. Places haunted by unquiet Indians were standard. Hotels were disturbed by Indians whose bones lay underneath the basements and floors—a neat psychic excavation of American unease with its brutal history. Plenty of what was happening to me happened in fiction. Unquiet Indians. What about unquiet settlers? Unquiet wannabes?…Maybe the bookstore was located on some piece of earth crossed by mystical lines.

Review posted – November 19, 2021

Publication date – November 9, 2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal and FB pages. Erdrich’s personal site redirects to the site Birchbark Books. She owns the store. There really is a confessional there. According to the store’s FAQ page, it was renamed a “forgiveness booth” after it was rescued from becoming a bar fixture.

A GHOST LIVES IN HER CREAKY OLD HOUSE

This is Erdrich’s seventeenth novel, among many other works. She won the National Book Award for The Round House, the National Book Critics Circle Award for LaRose and Love Medicine, and the Pulitzer Prize for The Night Watchman, among many other recognitions. Her familiarity with cultural mixing is personal, her mother being an Ojibwe tribal leader and her father being a German-American. Familiarity with both native spirituality and western religion also stems from her upbringing. She was raised Catholic.

Interviews
—– Louise Erdrich: The Sentence Book Launch Conversation by Anthony Ceballos
—–PBS – Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Sentence’ explores racial tensions in a divided Minneapolis
—–Publisher’s Weekly – A Ghost Persists: PW Talks with Louise Erdrich by Marian Perales

Other Louise Erdrich novels I have reviewed
—–2020 – The Night Watchman
—–2017 – Future Home of the Living God
—–2016 – LaRose
—–2010 – Shadow Tag
—–2012 – The Round House
—–2008 – The Plague of Doves
—–2005 – The Painted Drum

Songs/Music
—–Johnny Cash – Ain’t No Grave – Flora plays this while haunting Tookie

Items of Interest
—–NY Times – Where to Find Native American Culture and a Good Read By J. D. Biersdorfer
—–Twin Cities Daily Planet – After 17 years Birchbark Books continues to center Native stories, space amid society of erasure By Camille Erickson | April 27, 2017
—–The Catholic Crusade – the traditional Act of Contrition

2 Comments

Filed under American history, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Native Americans

Weighing the Cost of Silence – Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan

book cover

It was a December of crows. People had never seen the likes of them, gathering in black batches on the outskirts of town then coming in, walking the streets, cocking their heads and perching, impudently, on whatever lookout post that took their fancy, scavenging for what was dead, or diving in mischief for anything that looked edible along the roads before roosting at night in the huge old trees around the convent.
The convent was a powerful-looking place on the hill at the far side of the river with black, wide-open gates, and a host of tall, shining windows, facing the town.

Bill Furlong is a decent man, risen from a lowly station in life to being a respected pillar-of-the-community sort. Not well off, mind, but a coal and wood supplier who keeps several folks employed, his customers supplied, and his family fed, a George Bailey sort, but from a much less settled foundation. There is never much left over, and always a new cost looming on the horizon. In the course of making his rounds he sees something that presents a powerful moral challenge. The story is Furlong’s struggle to decide, stay silent, or do something.

description
Claire Keegan – image from her FB page – shot by Cartier-Bresson

1985 is a grim time in New Ross. Ireland is in the midst of a long recession. Despairing of ever finding work, people are emigrating in droves, to England, to America, to wherever work can be had. Those who remain hold little hope for any near relief. Those with work know that they could be laid off in a heartbeat. Those running businesses know that their continued survival depends on the continued demand of their customers, and the customers’ ability to pay. Those without work drain their savings, survive on the dole, or what charity they can find. Too many, employed or not, drown their fears in drink. Keegan captures the bleak tone of the time.

the dole queues were getting longer and there were men out there who couldn’t pay their ESB bills, living in houses no warmer than bunkers, sleeping in their coats. Women, on the first Friday of every month, lined up at the post office wall with shopping bags, waiting to collect their children’s allowances. And farther out the country, he’d known cows left bawling to be milked because the man who had their care had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat to Fishguard. Once, a man from St Mullins got a lift into town to pay his bill, saying that they’d had to sell the car as they couldn’t get a wink of sleep knowing what was owing, that the bank was coming down on them. And early one morning, Furlong has seen a young schoolboy eating from a chip bag that had been thrown down on the street the night before

Christmas is coming, and one might wonder if that starving boy was a descendant of Tiny Tim’s. Keegan even summons A Christmas Carol to mind, noting that, as a boy, Furlong had received the book for Christmas.

He had had a difficult start to life, raised by a single mother, his father not known to him. Luckily for them, a well-to-do local woman, Mrs Wilson, took in mother and son, employing mom to work in the house. Things could have been a lot worse. Like many other nations, Ireland was host to a network of Magdalene Laundries. These were institutions run by the Catholic Church, with the complicity of the Irish government. Young women who became pregnant were often cast out of their communities, their families even, and these enterprises took them in. Reports eventually emerged revealing the abuses these girls and young women endured, often being forced to give away their babies, living in degrading conditions, essentially forced laborers in church-state workhouses. Thousands of infants died there, and many of their mothers as well. New Ross was one of the places where a Magdalene laundry was run. It is one of the reasons Keegan chose to set her story there. This is not a tale about these laundries, per se, but one of those constitutes the immediate and very considerable dark force that Bill Furlong is thinking about taking on. While delivering coal to the convent, he sees something he was not supposed to see. To act or not to act, that is the question.

Why were the things that were closest so often the hardest to see?

The language of this novel, the imagery is powerfully effective, celestial even. I felt a need to read a lot of this book out loud. (trying to avoid spoiling it with my terribly fake Irish accent) There is a rhythm, a musicality to the writing that propels its powerful imagery towards the intended targets.

The passage quoted at the top of this review offers a sense not only of a grim time and place, but of the hostile force of the nuns, priests, and the Church, as embodied by the crows. The state, participant in the Magdalene miseries, is given passing notice when a local pol parachutes into town for a Christmas-tree-lighting, if it is possible to parachute in while riding a Mercedes and wearing a rich man’s coat. This is a town that is not being well looked after by the authorities.

When she was 17, she went to New Orleans. “I got an opportunity to go and stay with a family there, and then I wound up going to university. A double major in political science and English literature.”
She remembers well what Ireland was like the year she left.
“I really wanted to get out. It was 1986. Ann Lovett had just died. I felt the darkness that is in Small Things Like These. I felt that atmosphere of unemployment, and being trapped maybe. And things not looking so good for women.
“My parents used to go dancing, and I used go with them, down to the pub. I remember everybody getting really drunk at the bar on a Sunday night.
“I remember looking at all the men at the bar – it was pretty much all men at the bar – and they were getting drunk and saying they couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work in the morning. And then others would say they didn’t have any work in the morning.
– from the Independent interview

When she returned home with her degree, Keegan sent out 300 resumes and did not get a nibble. Erin go Bragh.

The harsh times have not driven from people in New Ross the ability to want things, needed or not. Furlong’s wife, Eileen, wants a proper, going-away vacation, as well as some nice things seen in a shop window. His children have small, mostly manageable desires. The people in town want an end to economic doldrums, some reason to stay around instead of emigrating. The residents of the convent want something more significant. Furlong is in dire need of a new truck to replace the one his business relies on, and which is nearing its last gasp. He also wants to know who his father was.

Of late, he was inclined to imagine another life, elsewhere, and wondered if this was not something in his blood; might his own father not have been one of those who had upped, suddenly, and taken the boat for England.

He is no saint, but workaholic Furlong has that rare capacity to look inside himself critically, consider his life, his actions, in light of his values, even recognize where he might have stepped away from the moral line he believes in following. He had opted to ignore wrongs he had seen before, but for this father of five girls, and son of a single mother, this is a tough one to let pass. However, there are powerful, and insidious forces arrayed against his better angels. He is repeatedly warned, when he mentions his concerns, that crossing the Church could be extremely costly.

The cold of the season will make you shiver and want to add another layer as you read. Some Irish coffee might help as well. Will Furlong cross that bridge and do something or let what he knows sink into nothingness in the dark, frigid waters of the Barrow River below? You will want to know, and will read on until you do.

Keegan is mostly known as a short-story writer. She has won many awards for her work, which is marked by compactness, showing what needs to be shown to tell her tale. Do not dismiss this novel for its brevity. Small Things Like These is huge! You may not need to prepare a manger with fresh hay, but I would definitely make room for this novel in your collection this holiday season. It is an evocative, beautiful, moving novel that deserves to become a Christmas classic.

As they carried on along and met more people Furlong did and did not know, he found himself asking was there any point in being alive without helping one another? Was it possible to carry on along through all the years, the decades, through an entire life, without once being brave enough to go against what was there and yet call yourself a Christian, and face yourself in the mirror?

Review posted – November 12, 2021

Publication date – November 30, 2021

I received an e-ARE of Small Things Like These from Grove Press in return for a fair review, and a few lumps of coal. Thanks, folks, and thanks to Netgalley for facilitating. Bless you, every one.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to Keegan’s personal, FB, and Twitter pages

On her personal site, there are links to, among other things, two of her short stories, in the Links tab.

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Claire Keegan: ‘Short stories are limited. I’m cornered into writing what I can’ by Sean O’Hagan – 2010
—–New Ross Standard – Claire’s novel examines cult of silence in 1980s New Ross by Simon Bourke – April 2021
—–Claire Keegan: ‘I think something needs to be as long as it needs to be’ by Claire Armistead
—–Independent.ie – Writer Claire Keegan: ‘I think stories go looking for their authors’ by Emily Hourican
—–The Writing Life – Claire Keegan and the art of subtraction by Terence Patrick Winch – video – 28:29 – from 2013 – re her short stories

Items of Interest from the author
—–The New Yorker – Foster – this is an abridged version of her award winning story
—–Hollihoux – a reading of Foster by Evanna Lynch

Items of Interest
—–The Charles Dickens page – A Christmas Carol – the full text
—–BBC – Irish mother and baby homes: Timeline of controversy
—–Wiki about The 2005 Ferns Report on sexual abuse of children by priests in the Diocese of Ferns
—–The actual report
—–Wiki on the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland
—–Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries
—–George Bailey
—–Ann Lovett

2 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Oh, Yes! – Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout

book cover

Throughout my marriage to William, I had had the image—and this was true even when Catherine was alive, and more so after she died—so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for the breadcrumbs that could lead us home.
This may sound like it contradicts my saying that the only home I ever had was with William, but in my mind they are both true and oddly do not go against each other. I am not sure why this is true, but it is. I suppose because being with Hansel—even if we were lost in the woods—made me feel safe.

People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.

My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) had been a very successful novel for Elizabeth Strout. She had even written a followup, Anything is Possible, (2017) a collection of stories, in which Lucy visits her Mid-West relations after a prolonged absence. Laura Linney was starring in a one-woman show of the former. Strout was there for a rehearsal when Laura opined that maybe William, Lucy’s ex, had had an affair. A lightbulb went off for Strout and she realized that William had a story of his own. Thus was born Oh, William!

description
Elizabeth Strout – image from Time magazine

She carried forward details about William from the prior books and built outward, or dug deeper, from there. There were some real-world elements of William’s tale. William’s father was a German POW, held in Maine, and his mother, the wife of a farmer who was using POW labor, fell in love with him and left her husband. The POW camp is a real place.

So my husband and I took a field trip. We went up there, we went to all the places that Lucy and William go on their own trip, and I took furious notes on everything I saw. And when we came back I settled down and wrote their story. – RandomHouse Book Club kit

Caveat Lector
You should know before diving in too far that, while I have read Strout’s Olive books, I have not read her prior Lucy Barton books. As Oh, William! is a third in that stack, this is not a trivial shortcoming. There are likely to be connections between this book and the prior two that I missed. But I have read up on those a bit, and acquired some gist. That said, I believe Oh, William! can be read, enjoyed and, hopefully, reviewed as a stand-alone. Just sayin’, cards on the table.

On the other hand, I felt very personally touched and engaged by the novel. I am of a common demographic with William, (we even share TWO names) and re-viewing the events of a lifetime is a natural hazard of this place in our existence. One thinks about the ages, the events, the people, the possibilities, the chances missed, and caught, the attempts that failed or succeeded, the misreads and the insights, the absence of understanding and the wise perceptions, maybe the bullets dodged, the awful relationships that never happened, the good ones that did, maybe the actual bullets that impacted elsewhere. In a way one might see this novel as a look back over William’s life from the point of his final days. A life examined. It could also be seen as the life of a relationship examined, the intersection of two trunks, Lucy and William, meeting, intertwining, then branching out in separate but linked directions.

In any such examination, whether of a life or relationship, it is natural, I believe, to wonder what might have been. Could we have performed better in the roles in which we were cast, or in which we had cast ourselves. To wonder why the director led us to this spot, to stage right instead of left, and always wondering at the playwright, and whether there was ever a script at all. This question of choices is one Strout takes on here. How much freedom of choice is there, actually, how much decision-making? William and Lucy talk about her decision to leave him.

I would like to know—I really would like to—when does a person actually choose anything? You tell me.”
I thought about this.
He continued, “Once every so often—at the very most—I think someone actually chooses something. Otherwise we’re following something—we don’t even know what it is but we follow it, Lucy. So, no. I don’t think you chose to leave.”
After a moment I asked, “Are you saying you don’t believe in free will?”
William put both hands to his head for a moment. “Oh stop with the free will crap,” he said. He kept walking back and forth as he spoke, and he pushed his hand through his white hair. “…I’m talking about choosing things. You know, I knew a guy who worked in the Obama administration, and he was there to help make choices. And he told me that very very few times did they actually have to make a choice. [
This was taken from a conversation Strout actually had with an Obama official, about how the decisions to be made were so obvious that there was little choosing required] And I always found that so interesting. Because it’s true. We just do—we just do, Lucy.”

And how might it be that so much of our lives is so constrained? A lot of that is based on where we began. Marx would call it class, and that is a very powerful force indeed. Strout digs into the specific roots of this for her characters. Lucy had grown up poor and miserable, (I have no memory of my mother ever touching any of her children except in violence.) and never felt entirely comfortable, persistently invisible even, (I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me.) in the more middle-class world in which she lived with William, a parasitologist researcher (a nod to her father of the same profession) and teacher, despite her successful authorial career, despite living in a nice neighborhood in Manhattan, despite raising successful children. She is not the only major character haunted by an impoverished childhood. It is made quite clear that this other character had been severely damaged by that experience and that it had driven many life decisions.

The external of the story is William’s discovery at age seventy-one that he has a half-sister he had never known about. William and Lucy had remained on friendly terms, despite their divorce and subsequent remarryings. William’s third wife has left him. Lucy is widowed. He asks her go to Maine with him to look into this never-suspected sibling. Although it seems a bit odd, Lucy agrees to go along. It gives them both opportunities to look back, not just on their own lives, but on the lives of William’s parents. Coming to this revelation so late in life raises an issue. Is it ever really possible to truly know anyone? Lucy had kept much of her early life hidden away. William’s mother, Catherine, a very large presence in their marriage, had done the same. William had kept plenty of secrets during their marriage, including multiple affairs. He covered his true feelings with a friendly façade, and Lucy loathed him for that. But Lucy had kept a part of herself turned away from him as well. Her family’s rejection of her marriage to William left a lasting scar. The externals of their trip reveal some buried truths, but this is a novel about internals, not physical action.

How does one cope with the challenges of dealing with other people, with those to whom we are closest? There is the challenge of knowing who they truly are in the first place. And then there is the challenge of letting our true selves be seen, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to trust others with our most delicate emotional parts. This is almost certainly universal. Who among us does not have at least one secret (and I would bet that most have more) that we keep hidden even from our closest friends, our lovers, our mates, parents, children, priests, shrinks, not to mention the police?

There was an amazing film released in 1973, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage. (Recently remade for HBO) It examines ten years of a union doomed to failure. The original was a revelation for me. My gf at the time urged me not to see it, concerned about the impact on my view of whatever-it-was we had. Oh, William! reminded me of that, less as a forensic analysis of a marital corpse, but as a broader view of a lifelong connection, in their marriage, and beyond it, a friendship. It looks at what went into building their marriage, at what kept it from being more than it was, and at the impact of William’s mother on their lives. Even after they split up, Lucy often says He is the only home I ever had.

One of the many triumphs of Oh, William! is how Strout offers up many small bits, pointing out the things about their interactions with each other that drove them crazy, that show without telling.

He stared at me, and then I realized he wasn’t really seeing me.
“Did you sleep?” I asked him, and he broke into a smile then, his mustache moving, and he said, “I did. How crazy is that? I slept like a baby.”
He did not ask about my sleep and I did not tell him.

The past is our inevitable root. We are not ents, that can simply follow our needs and drag ourselves away from where we sprouted. That past is inescapable, even if we can change our external circumstances, move up in the world, move away from the painful parts that formed us. But we live in the present, and the past often appears to the here-and-now in the form of ghosts, of one sort or another. When William and Lucy visit Fort Fairfield in Maine, it is truly a ghost town, barely even a town any more. Images they see in the local library conjure a long dead era. In a way their marriage, if not their friendship, is a spectral presence, long dead, although still hovering in the room.

I usually try to come up with something that did not sit well in a book, gripes of one sort or another, elements that might have been better. This time, really, I got nuthin’.

There is so much in this novel that is beautifully portrayed, insightful, wise, and moving. A penetrating portrait of two people and their half-century of connection, warts and all. Oh, William! is a masterwork by one of our greatest fiction writers, at the peak of her creative power. Oh, Elizabeth. You’ve done it again.

There have been a few times—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave that house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)—to have this come back to me presented a domain of dull and terrifying dreariness to me: There was no escape.
When I was young there was no escape, is what I am saying.

Review posted – November 5, 2021

Publication date – October 19, 2021

I received an ARE of Oh, William! from Random House in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews
—–The Guardian – Elizabeth Strout: ‘I’ve thought about death every day since I was 10’ by Kate Kellaway
—–Time – Elizabeth Strout Knows We Can’t Escape the Past by Annabel Gutterman
—–Entertainment Weekly – Howe a literary conscious uncoupling and Laura Linney helped Elizabeth Strout write Oh, William! – by Seija Rankin
—–Bookpage – Elizabeth Strout: The heart and soul of an emotional spy by Alice Cary – for Anything is Possible
—–WBUR – Author Elizabeth Strout explores marriage, memory and class in ‘Oh William!’ – audio – 9:26

My reviews of other books by the author
—–2019 – Olive, Again
—–2008 – Olive Kitteridge

Items of Interest from the author
—–WBUR – excerpt
—–Random House – Book Club Kit
—–Literary Hub – excerpt

4 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews