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Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout

It is five years since “My Name is Lucy Barton” was published – long enough and so many books ago that I cannot recall the details. That is always the problem with a trilogy that develops over a long period; the loss of small important details.

In the first instalment I recall Lucy in a New York hospital, visited by her mother who told her stories about the places she came from, her poor upbringing and rural childhood.

In this new book we look back at Lucy’s first marriage to William, the father to her two daughters. We see everything from her perspective as narrator and as a writer. We learn the details gradually.

We see William now, still on good terms with Lucy, and still rather needy. Still needing her help. That title: Oh William! with its exclamation mark, can often be heard repeated in the feelings Lucy has for the past or her exasperation with the present and with William. We also see, in detail, what it was that forced them apart. A friend over for dinner talks quietly to Lucy about the amazing sex she is having in an affair:

‘And when she said that to me I knew. About William. I don’t know why, but that was the moment I knew, and when we came downstairs I looked at William and I believe he saw in my look that I knew, and we waited for the guests to leave and then the girls to go to bed, and I told him what the woman had said, and after a while he confessed. First to one, and then to a couple of others. There was a woman that William worked with that he seemed to care for especially, although he said he was not in love with any of them. But he did not tell me about Joanne for another three months. And when he told me about Joanne I thought I might die. I had already thought I would die hearing about the other women. But this woman, Joanne, had been in our house countless times, she had brought the girls to see me in the hospital one summer when I was sick , she had been a friend of mine as well as my husband’s.

A tulip stem inside me snapped. That is what I felt.

It has stayed snapped, it never grew back.

I began to write more truthfully after that.’

William is deserted by his subsequent wife and he calls on Lucy to help him. Not just to understand why, but to find out more about his mother and her family. He discovers that his mother had a child before him and he has a half-sister that he knew nothing of. This prompts a trip on which he takes Lucy and goes to find this half-sister. In the end it is Lucy who sits and talks to her, acting as mediator. Truths are discovered but William does not get to meet her. Instead they go to see the house where William’s mother lived and are shocked by the poverty of it:

‘The house was so – so – small.

William turned the car off and we sat in silence. Through the windows the inside of the house was dark; nothing could be seen. Only a little bit could I imagine people moving about in there. The grass had grown very high around the place, and saplings were standing close to it. Two saplings had even grown through the house, they came out of the almost-fallen-down roof.

I glanced at William and his face looked so bewildered, it made me ache for him. And I understood: Never in my life would I have imagined Catherine coming from such a place.’

All the characters are on a voyage of discovery. That is why it would be good to read the trilogy in sequence and close together, to spot the links and subtleties between the stories. I am sure that there are little details escaping my attention. That is not said to take anything away from the skill or enjoyment in reading this book.

There are plenty of curious features to think about.

Lucy says that she has always felt invisible – if there was a big corkboard with a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for her. At the same time she is also identified by many because of her writing – they have copies of her books in the library that she and William visit, and William’s half-sister has copies of her books. It is a curious thing, writing books about a writer who is writing books. The first author must remain invisible to allow the second author, the fictional one, to emerge through the writing. William’s half-sister asks Mary if she can feature in one of her novels, which is funny really, because here she is, featuring in a novel.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Penguin Random House


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