Last year Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton was one of the long list nominations for the Man Booker Prize. It is a hugely enjoyable novel about a young woman who leaves behind a poverty-stricken rural upbringing to move to New York, where she becomes a successful writer. Forced to spend some weeks in hospital, Lucy Barton is visited by her mother who brings with her stories of the many people Lucy left behind in rural Illinois.
This new volume, Anything is Possible, picks up on some of those lost histories and minor characters from the first book and breathes a little life into their stories. The nine different sections are almost a collection of short stories, sometimes having only the most tentative of connections. All have a mention of Lucy Barton in there somewhere, so that after the first few I began to think that Lucy herself would never appear in the book except as a reference by one of the other characters. Eventually, in the sixth story, Lucy does come back to Amgash Illinois to visit the siblings that she has not seen for seventeen years. It is not a reunion that goes well, her brother and sister were also damaged by their upbringing, emotionally scarred by the treatment and the poverty of their past. But they are family. Somehow there are good moments amid the pain, but eventually panic attacks about the past force Lucy back into her new life and away from her old.
That is the beauty of this book, it touches on everyday relationships, both good ones and bad ones. The covers are lifted on all manner of stories and relationships, some of which are painful and some hard to understand. Why do people linger in relationships that cause them pain? Why would they turn a blind eye to what is happening around them? Anything is Possible does not seek to answer those questions or to take a moral high ground, merely to present them to us, warts and all. The joy of the book is in their variety and diversity, human weaknesses and strengths which are beautifully portrayed with sensitivity and a certain amount of detachment.
Very like My Name is Lucy Barton, I enjoyed this slim volume immensely, but by the end find it hard to say exactly what it is I enjoyed so much. Perhaps it is the portrayal of what feel like real lives, written so well and so convincingly that we are on the point of believing them. And throughout all nine stories, a thin trail of hope, the hope that anything really is possible.