Book Review: Oh William! — Elizabeth Strout
Ah! The twee middle class urban novel. I knew it from the minute I set eyes on this book and its cutesy cover design. We would be in comfortable WASPish ennui mode, following a middle-class, middle-aged, middle-weight (for relatability purposes, although the author is always stick thin) woman called something like Alexandria Quirk as she wanders about the nicer areas of a major city, having polite, reserved conversations about things which are emotionally distressing but ultimately low-stakes.
In some ways, I was right. In fact, in almost every way I was right, but it still feels like I was completely wrong about Oh William!, because I absolutely loved it.
This is the third book by Elizabeth Strout to feature main character Lucy Barton, but there’s no need to have read the previous novel and short story collection in advance — no prior knowledge is necessary, and Strout throws chronology to the winds at a very early stage, so there’s no sense that you’re entering a story halfway through. Lucy Barton is a successful writer of late middle age who was raised in small-town America. Cynics might claim Strout is simply writing about herself, but there was never any problem with writing what you know, particularly when you’re allowing readers to know you. (No matter how young, male, and obnoxious readers may be.)
The plot hinges on Lucy’s ex-husband William and his discovery of a terrible family secret. Interwoven with this thread is memories of their marriage, memories of their now-adult children, memories of Lucy’s second husband who has recently passed away, memories of William’s mother, memories of Lucy’s childhood in an abusive home, and a host of William’s memories too. Writing that all out has hammered home just how many threads this story has, yet Strout sews them all together effortlessly in little more than 200 pages.
“Stream of consciousness” is a phrase more often associated with avant-garde writers desperate to obscure a complete lack of substance to their work. Here, however, it makes a lot more sense. We are witnessing Oh William!’s story threads as they float to the top of Lucy’s brain, and they are relayed to us like thoughts, complete with repetitions and corrections: Lucy often says, for instance, “Anyway, what I’m trying to say is … ” Readers are being told the story in the most literal sense, as if we are simply listening to someone chatting.
And the mad thing is that it all works. It works exceptionally well, through all the story threads and the achronology and the writing style. Telling a story out of order without sinking to Christopher-Nolan-style pretentiousness is quite difficult to do, but Strout does it with apparent ease. It’s not just possible, it’s easy to keep the cast of characters in your head and follow the split narratives. To the point where I found myself lying in bed one morning and remembering almost exactly the way Strout had phrased something. This is profoundly good writing, and I’m in awe.
The writing itself is in that uncontracted, Hemingway-esque style which almost seems like an evasion of style. When I come across it I always feel suspicious of the writer — like they’re not really trying to write so they can be sure to avoid failure. It’s also just not a personal preference of mine — I’ll take the zaniness of Zadie Smith, Nabokov, or Rushdie over Hemingway any day. And I suppose Strout’s storytelling would get tiresome if the book stretched to 500 pages, or if the story felt bloated, but it rarely felt like that was happening. Most everything adds to either the story or the characterisation, and therefore every part of the story and every character is interesting.
Lucy focuses most of her attention on those around her, providing opinions occasionally but focusing greater attention on the subtle mannerisms and surprising reactions of her loved ones. Think Sally Rooney but without the relentless preaching. Rooney characters are often rigidly defined, as, for example, Arrogant Arsehole Student repeatedly says outrageously awful things until readers are pummelled into accepting he’s a bad person. In contrast, Strout does not directly invite her readers to form opinions, and we’re given enough nuance that it can be quite difficult to do so easily. William is shown to be his own form of Arrogant Arsehole Ex-Student who uses Lucy for emotional support only to drop her the moment he no longer requires it, yet he is given enough empathy by Lucy that I felt empathetic towards him as an extension of my empathy for her. (If that makes any sense?) Meanwhile, Lucy berates herself for being “invisible,” or “self-centered” when these are clearly not true. Yet it’s not so much an unreliable narrator situation; it’s more an exploration of how our opinions of people and events can change drastically depending on the moment and the context.
Ultimately, Oh William! demonstrates the subtleties and ironies of family interrelationships and how we perceive them. It does stray into twee territory sometimes, and it does philosophize sometimes, but any diversions feel at worst earned by good writing, and at best quite profound. It’s not the type of book I would ever have picked up on my own, nor is it the type of book I expect to get shortlisted for the Booker. But the next time I walk past a pastel covered-book with a stylised plant on the front cover talking about the dark family secrets of Haberdashery Jones, I might just check my snobbishness and pick it up.