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Bringing secret shame to light

"It made me feel much better, it made me feel much less alone," says Patty Nicely to her neighbour Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran haunted by his wartime past.

Patty is referring to her experience of reading her cousin Lucy Barton's new book.

Charlie shakes his head. "Oh no. We are always alone."

This exchange in Strout's latest book succinctly encapsulates the author's brave attempt - yet again - to use words to serve as a bulwark against the overwhelming tide of loneliness that inhabits the lives of the characters in her novels.

Anything Is Possible tells the story of various inhabitants in the rural, small town of Amgash, Illinois, the home town of successful New York writer Lucy Barton. She returns after an absence of 17 years to visit her siblings.

The meta conceit used in this book is Strout's previous book, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and characters in this tale also buy Lucy's book and refer to it.

  • FICTION


  • ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

    By Elizabeth Strout

    Viking/ Hardcover/ 254 pages/ $29.91/ Books Kinokuniya

    4/5 stars

The themes in both books are similar, but Anything Is Possible goes further in exploring the roots of alienation.

Lucy's feelings of isolation come about when she is unable to adequately communicate the weight of her past to her friends in New York and her mother, who visits her in hospital.

But in the book, the problem is not the silences built around the unsaid or the unsayable. The issue broadens to a larger one - that man is not aware of the "truth" he wishes to communicate.

Moments of doubt and the existential awareness of not knowing enough beset the characters frequently, from a farmer questioning if the fire that razed his farm down is a sign from God to a daughter wondering if her secretly gay father really loves her.

Another daughter cannot wrap her mind around the fact that her mother left her marriage after 51 years and asks: "How did you ever know? You never knew anything and anyone who thought they knew anything - well, they were in for a great big surprise."

Strout's sharp prose, then, seeks to unearth and surface more glimpses of this truth by bringing secret shame to light.

Forbidden desire and private shame feature strongly in this book, whether it is sexual abuse, masturbation, homosexuality or adultery.

When Lucy returns to her home town and her siblings dredge up the past, she gets a panic attack and drives back to New York.

Earlier on, her sister had referred to an episode of their mother cutting up her clothes and said: "You want truthful sentences? I mean it. Write about that."

"I don't want to write that story," Lucy replies.

Despite the cacophony of voices at the edges, Strout's skilful attention to detail ironically points the reader to the void that lies at its centre.

If you like this, read: All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2015, HarperCollins, $21.40, Books Kinokuniya), where a blind French girl meets a German boy in occupied France and both try to survive the devastation of World War II.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2017, with the headline 'Bringing secret shame to light'. Print Edition | Subscribe