Book - Oh William!

Oh William by Elizabeth Strout book cover

Tony Cross is reading his way through the Booker Prize Longlist 2022. Today he is taking on Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout...

“A tulip stem inside me snapped. This is what I felt. It has stayed snapped, it never grew back.”

Oh William is Elizabeth Strout’s ninth novel. It is narrated by Lucy Barton; the titular centre of My Name is Lucy Barton (2016). So, here is my first confession. I haven’t read My Name is Lucy Barton. However, I don’t think it is essential. You can get some idea of previous events from the way they are referred to in this book.

My second confession is that this is exactly the sort of book – on the surface - that I would have had in mind if you’d asked me about literary fiction and Booker Prize listed novels: the problems of middle-class people in New York. And, initially, that’s how I was reading it. With my oh so cynical 21st century readers head on I thought I was going to hate it.

Except I found myself drawn in. Lucy Barton is such a real human being. Her personality and character shine through not just in what she says but how she says it. She has this habit of clarifying her own words putting the phrase, ‘…is what I meant’ at the end of a paragraph where she has explained how she feels. As if she doesn’t trust us – or herself – to have understood. She’s also incredible at spotting detail both in speech and environment. She seems to be constantly looking.

The novel is, ostensibly, the tale of what happens when her ex-husband, William, gets two significant shocks in his life. But around that Strout weaves the story of other lives. Lucy Barton’s, William’s and Catherine, William’s mother. Running through the book is also a thread about grief. Because Lucy has lost her husband, David, and that grief washes over her occasionally and, perhaps because it isn’t a constant thread, it packs a real punch when Lucy Barton mentions it.

The jokes about literary fiction that I mentioned earlier assume that you can’t – or shouldn’t – have sympathy with comfortable people having problems and when done badly it can come across as smug and out of touch. But in truth pretty much everyone falls in love, feels grief, argues with their family and – assuming I’m not alone here – has doubts and fears. And those things effect you regardless of how comfortably off you are. Even if your options might be broader if you’ve got money. So, when done well, literary fiction will move you. However cynical about the whole thing you might have been.

Oh William does that. The characters aren’t perfect, but they are human. And I think that is the strength of Strout’s writing. You do end up caring about these people and she does put into words feelings that we all have so that you can understand yourself more having read it and think, ‘so I’m not the only person who feels like this?’

I’m going to read My Name is Lucy Barton. And I’d like to dip into her other novels too and see if she brings the same vividness and reality to other people’s stories.

Follow Tony on Twitter @Lokster71

Image - Amazon

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