Book review: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Amgash #3)

oh william elizabeth stroutWhat a joy it is to have a new Elizabeth Strout novel! This is the third featuring Lucy Barton.

Lucy Barton is now 63, and grief and ageing are weighing on her mind. Lucy’s beloved second husband has recently died but this story is mainly about her first husband, the eponymous William. Lucy and William have two children together and remain on good terms. He is on his third marriage and in his seventies is continuing his work as a scientist and academic. Still, Lucy thinks she sees a change in him as he becomes preoccupied by his family history.

The story of William’s present crisis is interspersed with Lucy’s reflections on their marriage, her complex relationship with William’s mother, Catherine, and her own traumatic childhood.

Her grief is portrayed by what she doesn’t say. She hints at it, touches on it, then strays away. It is as if by telling William’s story, she is able to explore her own life and losses at one remove.

Oh William! has an unusual structure. Lucy begins by telling the reader, as if in a conversation, that she wants to talk about William. There are no chapters and the broadly chronological account of William’s recent life is interspersed with flashbacks, impressions and random thoughts. It does feel fresh and immediate, as if she is talking to you, forming her opinions in real time, constantly questioning and qualifying her perceptions.

However, she also warns you that as a writer she can’t help but using novelistic touches. So we have Strout, a novelist, skilfully weaving the story of Lucy, a novelist, confiding the story of William. This adds an extra layer of ambiguity to a narrative which already relies on memory, perception and subjective experience.

This is the beauty of Strout’s writing, the subtlety, the compassionate acceptance that people are both cruel and kind, the way their perceptions of themselves and others shift. She has a magical ability to capture all that is moving and profound in apparently ordinary lives, and even in a story of sadness and grief there is something uplifting.

I’m not sure how reading Oh William! would be if you haven’t read the previous books. So much relies on an appreciation of the history of the characters and Lucy’s (Strout’s) voice. If you are new to Elizabeth Strout’s fiction, it might be best to read the two other Amgash books first. As someone already immersed in her world, I loved it.

I received a copy of Oh William! from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Oh William! on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Olive Kitteridge, another Elizabeth Strout novel, features in my pick of great novels about mothers

 

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