Beware the Hype: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

 

My Name is Lucy Barton has been included on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016, and so understandably it’s quite popular at the moment generating a bit of hype. Almost every review I have read (both in newspapers/magazines and online) has been favourable, mentioning the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth of the story. My fiance’s mother gave me her copy to read, and I had high hopes.

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It is a novel without much of a plot. Our narrator Lucy is looking back at her life and recounts the time she spent in hospital in the mid 1980s. Her mother, who she had not seen for years, came to visit her and stayed for five days. They talked mostly about people they used to know, gossiping and laughing. That is the frame for the story, and the starting point for Lucy to recount various other scenes in her life that are relevant and or in some way related to this time or this visit from her mother.

Ostensibly it is a novel about a mother/daughter relationship and the nature of family. The Barton family were desperately poor when Lucy was growing up and clearly didn’t have an easy time; there are also allusions to some kind of abuse, possibly sexual, though no details are given. Whatever happened it seems like Lucy is living in a post-trauma phase in her life – her narration is very childlike and simple, and she fights to explain everything she says. Her voice is distinctive but in my opinion not very well executed as the childlike side of her is frustrating rather than endearing. She struggles to understand people and has very little emotion in her voice. I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (which would explain either her being traumatised or possibly on the autism spectrum) or just the deep self-consciousness of the writing. It seems to be a ‘thing’ these days to write in a quite blank way that is supposed to convey deep emotion in a method similar to poetry, and while this sometimes works it certainly doesn’t in this case. This ‘blankness’ also meant that to me the characters seemed underdeveloped. Given that Lucy is our narrator she is the most fully-formed, but I would say she is only 75% developed. All the other characters, including her mother, are almost like templates – they do not seem to have full personalities. As with the tone of Lucy’s narration I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (perhaps demonstrating that Lucy finds it hard to understand other people) or just a flaw in the writing.

Many reviews I’ve read praised the deep emotion of the book – but to me this novel is almost emotionless. Lucy’s voice is very flat and unmoving, and I found her hard to connect or empathise with. Given most people’s very different reaction, I wonder if I am missing something that the author is doing intentionally, or if this book just wasn’t for me. I’d be interested to hear from other readers who didn’t completely love it.

Lastly I want to consider Lucy’s relationship with her mother. Before the hospital visit they haven’t seen each other in about a decade, and the reason for this seems to be a mixture of Lucy’s desire to move away from her family to start her own life, and her parents’ dislike of her husband. Lucy also seems to have some level of resentment or anger towards her mother for her difficult childhood, though we do not know exactly what happened there. The mother is very distant and emotionally unavailable – Lucy says she has come to expect that her mother can never say ‘I love you’. They speak a couple of times about Lucy’s childhood and the rest of the family, but always briefly and evasively; most of their conversations are about people they remember from the past and where they ended up. Most of these stories are of divorce and heartbreak, but Lucy and her mother enjoy recounting them. This seems to bridge a gap between them, but it also means that most of their conversations are largely meaningless. The mother leaves the hospital quite abruptly and after that Lucy states they do not see each other again for a long time. I think I could see what Elizabeth Strout was trying to do with this relationship, to show them trying to connect with each other, but her method of doing this made it very hard for me to connect with the characters. There was not enough depth to their joint story, and it felt like there could have been so much more to it.

My Name is Lucy Barton is an odd little novel. I think a lot of people will warm to it, but it just didn’t work for me.

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Published by Viking (an imprint of Penguin) in 2016.

Available from Wordery and Foyles.

Review: Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson (Man Booker Prize 2013 Longlist)

Image: charlottemendelson.com
Image: charlottemendelson.com

Almost English came to me by chance, and I was instantly taken with its cover (they are so, so important, aren’t they?).

It is not only striking but carefully designed, and modern too. ‘Modern’ – what I mean by that really is that it does not look like a lot of other book covers knocking about at the moment. So many of them seem to look the same, so it’s nice to see something different. It’s also understated – I for one hate covers where too much is going on and you don’t know where to look.

Our central character Marina is a schoolgirl, and I feel that in some ways this would be a great book for schoolgirls to read (of Marina’s age that is, i.e. 16/17) as it paints a vivid and realistic portrait of how utterly awful it is to be a 16 or 17 year old girl and how difficult it is to navigate between family, school, and boys.

Marina’s mother Laura is also rather central and gets her own sections of the book. She is, for lack of a better phrase, weak willed, and is also rather unhappy. Marina’s father left years and years ago, and the mother and daughter duo live with his mother and her two sisters – elderly Hungarians. The three of them are a wonderful trio, bringing both comedy and drama to the story and illustrating the vital importance not only of family ties but also family history and legacy. I loved all of them, and Mendelson’s knack for phonetically writing their accents is brilliant. Her own grandparents were Hungarian and you can actually feel the affection for them in this book.

Marina is unhappy living with this mish mash of family and begs to be sent to Combe Abbey, a traditional English boarding school, convinced that this will solve all her problems and make her feel less ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’. Of course it does not go to plan, and the results of Marina’s efforts to fit in and find happiness are simultaneously hilarious, excruciating, and rather sad.

Mendelson’s story and her characters are vivid and almost touchable. You are immersed in their world and when you close the book it lingers around you. Almost English entertained and moved me, and made me miss hugs from my also foreign grandma.

Visit Charlotte Mendelson’s website to hear her discussing Almost English on Foyles radio with Fiction Uncovered, and in a little video made with her publishers. Luckily she seems to be absolutely lovely.

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Published by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, on 15th August 2013. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.

Almost English is on the longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Read more here.

The Man Booker Prize Longlist 2013 Is Announced!

Image: southbankcentre.co.uk
Image: southbankcentre.co.uk

Literary prizes are always fun: plenty of speculation and eager guesses, plus loads of reviews and recommendations to savour. There are also the bloggers who try to read whole longlists and shortlists, whom I really admire because I could never take on that amount of reading with a deadline! And the nominated books are always so diverse, and I am very reluctant these days to read a book I know isn’t my sort of thing.

The longlist for this year’s Man Booker Prize came out today, and as is only right social media subsequently exploded with congratulations, reading challenges and excitement. Personally I am rooting for Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson. I read the book a few months ago when the lovely Sophie from Mantle at Pan Mac sent it to me. All the other books on the list look equally worthy, however, so I cannot imagine how the judges are to go about choosing a shortlist, and then a winner.

Almost English is the only one I have read and while I won’t be committing to reading the whole list I like the idea of choosing a couple to read so that I feel a bit more informed about the whole thing. The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton appeals, as does The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, and Unexploded by Alison MacLeod (you can find out more about all these titles, and the rest of the list, here). No promises, but I’ll see how many I can read before the shortlist is announced in September.

Have you read any of the longlist? What do you think of the choices this year? Comment below!

Best of 2012: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel – Guest Post by Peggy Riley

This post has kindly been written by author and playwright Peggy Riley. Peggy’s debut novel Amity and Sorrow will be published in March 2013 by Tinder Press, a new imprint of Headline. Here Peggy talks about her pick for 2012, Booker Prize winning Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel.

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My book of the year was Bring Up the Bodies. Wasn’t it yours? Hilary Mantel’s second of three books about Thomas Cromwell seemed to top every book list going, though she was pipped to the ‘Waterstones Book of the Year’ post by an octopus.

2012 cover. Image: 4thestate.co.uk
2012 cover. Image: 4thestate.co.uk

My reading this year has mostly consisted of last year’s and next year’s books, but it is hard to find a book published this year that is more audacious. You don’t just read a book and a story this large, this grand, this all-consuming; you live with it and through it. The experience of reading it is near hallucinatory, with its great waves of words washing over and through you. It is a testament to Mantel’s skill that the middle book of a trilogy be so compelling, able to stand alone from Wolf Hall yet leading the reader to ache for the denouement that will come in the third, The Mirror and the Light, even though the ending is already fixed in time.

I don’t know what I’ve learned of Henry and his wives and wars; I’m a Tudor-nerd and my sense of them has been created via a variety of media over the years.  I’m not sure that Mantel has altered, adjusted or even added to my sense of them. What she has done is to bring a painting to life, this relatively unknown man captured by Holbein. Before reading, I had a vague sense of him, that he was somehow “bad”.  Mantel has shown me a multi-faceted, fully-realised character who has become, for me, a real man, a living piece of history set within a fabulous story. My sense of Cromwell will forever be Mantel’s now. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Hilary Mantel at the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Image: guardian.co.uk
Hilary Mantel at the 2012 Man Booker Prize. Image: guardian.co.uk

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Bring Up The Bodies was published by Fourth Estate in May 2012 and went on to win this year’s Man Booker Prize.

 

 

A not-for-profit publisher have a book on the Booker long list! Very exciting. Also, it sounds really rather good. Reblogged from Dog Ear Discs.

 

The nomination of Swimming Home on the Booker longlist is a lot more important than first appears. Upon opening my copy of the novel, I discovered that not only are & Other Stories a not for profit publisher who stand for the writing above the money that is pulled in from selling their titles, but the novel was also backed by Lottery funding. The fact that this novel made it to the Booker longlist shows that great literature isn’t just coming from the big publishing houses, this is a big deal.

It also helps that Deborah Levy’s novel is utterly worthy of its inclusion. Swimming Home is a short, impactful and punchy read that is overflowing with emotion. The premise is basic, but it’s the cast and the craft that has gone into their creation that make the novel a stand out work. The book opens with a glimpse of…

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