Tag Archives: Viking

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Back in early 2018, I read Olive Kitteridge (2008), Elizabeth Strout’s widely acclaimed novel in short stories set in the fictional coastal town of Crosby in Maine. I adored the book but felt I couldn’t write about it at the time – partly because I was taking a break from blogging but mostly because I didn’t want to over-analyse it. Sometimes a book is just so perfect that it feels wrong somehow to break it down, as if by doing so one destroys the magic or fails to capture what makes it so special.

I feel much the same way about the sequel, Olive, Again (2019) – which if anything seems even better, even more profoundly insightful about the day-to-day burdens of life than its predecessor. Nevertheless, I want to try to note a few thoughts about this novel here as it will almost certainly feature in my reading highlights of the year.

For those of you unfamiliar with these books, both focus on Olive Kitteridge, a retired maths teacher who lives in a small-town community in Maine, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else’s day-to-day business. Each book is structured as a sequence of interlinked short stories. Olive features in pretty much every story – sometimes front and centre in the narrative, other times on the periphery, bumping into the main character in the street, often with a somewhat dismissive wave of the hand over her head. Now and again, an individual from one of Strout’s other (non-Olive) novels appears, the connections to Olive – however tenuous – reaching out to encompass various strands of this author’s work.

Olive is a highly complex, multi-faceted character. She is direct, abrasive, intolerant and cranky; and yet she is also capable of demonstrating real empathy towards others, particularly those who feel depressed, neglected or marginalised by mainstream society. In Olive Again, a young woman dying from cancer is a particularly poignant example. Only Olive has the courage to visit this woman, easing her isolation with her straight-talking manner, while others are too embarrassed or fearful of what to say, preferring instead to avoid any contact.

At the end of Olive Kitteridge, our protagonist is in her mid-seventies – newly widowed following the death of her husband, Henry – at the beginning of a potential new relationship with Jack, also bereaved, lonely and at a similar stage of life. The early chapters of Olive, Again chart the couple’s developing bond, a relationship not without its own tensions and frustrations. However, there is enough that unites Olive and Jack to enable them to progress to a shared existence and ultimately marriage in their twilight years. Jack, for his part, is somewhat more easy-going than Olive, more willing to accept her flaws and failings, loving her in spite of and because of her ‘Oliveness’.

The need for Olive to tell her son Christopher – a podiatrist now married to wife no. 2 – of her own forthcoming marriage, forms the basis of one the best, most acutely observed vignettes in the book. Olive’s failures as a mother are painful exposed to her during a tense family visit, as Christopher, Ann and their four children (two from Ann’s previous relationships) make the trip from their home in New York to Crosby, Maine.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth: She [Olive] had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. Other people had their children come and stay and they talked and laughed and the grandchildren sat on the lap of their grandmothers, and they went places and did things, ate meals together, kissed when they parted. Olive had images of this happening in many homes; her friend Edith, for example, before she had moved to that place for old people, her kids would come and stay. Surely they had a better time than what had just happened here. And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had caused this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? As she sat across from Jack–stunned–she felt as though she had lived her life as though blind. (p. 91, Olive, Again, Viking)

These sudden realisations – the unexpected dawning of uncomfortable truths – run through the narrative as Olive finds herself reflecting on certain aspects of her life. Perhaps most notably, Olive dwells on her lack of appreciation of Henry when they were together as a couple, her coldness towards him when all he was doing was simply asking for her love. This particular insight first strikes Olive in the most unlikely of situations, in the midst of a baby shower which she finds utterly intolerable – both tedious and ridiculous in equal measure. It is one of the standout vignettes in this exceptional novel, laced with a blend of excruciating humour and lacerating poignancy.

In the final third of the book, we find Olive in her early eighties, trying to maintain a sense of independence as the years slip by. As a natural consequence of the ageing process, Olive must learn to accept help from others from time to time. Her interactions with a doctor and a team of home carers offer some deep insights into the human condition – not only for Olive but for her carers too. Everyone has to deal with their own hardships in life, irrespective of the nature of their position. Olive’s opinionated carer, Betty – an avid supporter of Trump, much to Olive’s horror – has her own challenges: more specifically, the fallout from two broken marriages and a son with special needs. Her life sucks, nevertheless it matters – Olive can see this even if Betty cannot.

While there are many things to love and admire about this book, it is Strout’s insight into the fragility of our existence that feels most affecting. There is some brilliant writing here about the loneliness and terror of old age (the anxiety is palpable), the realisation of lost opportunities and past failings; and ultimately the fear of death itself.

This is a profoundly moving book – a highly perceptive portrait of a genuine individual and her small-town community. The political nuances of small-town life are vividly portrayed, even when glimpsed for the tiniest of moments. Read it but be prepared to shed a tear or two…

Olive, Again is published by Viking; my thanks to Penguin Random House for kindly providing a reading copy.

(I loved it so much that I bought myself a copy of the finished book, used for the quotation here.)

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey (review)

Elizabeth is Missing, Healey’s impressive debut novel, is narrated by Maud, an eighty-two year old woman with dementia. The book opens with a brief prologue set in the present day in which Maud finds the broken lid of an old make-up compact in her friend, Elizabeth’s, garden. It’s an item Maud recognises from a lifetime ago, one that triggers memories of a mystery from her past:

The broken lid of an old compact, its silver tarnished, its navy-blue enamel no longer glassy but scratched and dull. The mildewed mirror is like a window on a faded world, like a porthole looking out under the ocean. It makes me squirm with memories.

‘What have you lost?’ The woman steps, precarious and trembling, out on to the patio. ‘Can I help? I might not be able to see it, but I can probably manage to trip over it if it’s not too well hidden.’

I smile, but I don’t move from the grass. Snow has collected on the ridges of a shoeprint and it looks like a tiny dinosaur fossil freshly uncovered. I clutch at the compact lid in my hand, soil tightening my skin as it dries. I’ve missed this tiny thing for nearly seventy years. And now the earth, made sludgy and chewable with the melting snow, has spat out a relic. Spat it into my hand. But where from? That’s what I can’t discover. Where did it lie before it became the gristle in the earth’s meal? (pgs. 1-2, Viking)

IMG_1432

As the story itself gets going, we begin to build a picture of Maud’s day-to-day life with dementia. Maud’s short-term memory is poor, so she forgets when she’s eaten or made a cup of tea, and she often finds herself disoriented and at a loss as to her intentions. This results in her eating too much toast, leaving several cups of tea to go cold and buying far too many tins of sliced peaches when she forgets what she needs at the shops. Dementia sufferers often repeat certain patterns of behaviour, and Healey illustrates this through Maud’s tangle of thoughts and movements. Here’s Maud as she struggles while shopping for food:

Eggs. Milk – question mark – Chocolate.’ I turn my bit of paper about to catch the light. There’s a cosy cardboardy smell in the shop and it’s like being in the larder at home. ‘Eggs, milk, chocolate. Eggs, milk, chocolate.’ I say the words, but I can’t quite think what the things look like. Could they be in any of the boxes in front of me? I carry on muttering the list under my breath as I shuffle about the shop, but the words begin to lose meaning and are like a chant. I’ve got ‘marrows’ written down here too, but I don’t think they sell them here. (pg 7)

As a reminder of what to do (and what to avoid doing), Maud scribbles notes to herself which she keeps in her pockets.  And additional notes are dotted around Maud’s house, courtesy of her daughter, Helen, and carer, Carla: ‘coffee helps memory’, ‘lunch for Maud to eat after 12 p.m.’. However, Maud often struggles to make sense of her paper memory, as she finds it hard to recall the meaning of these jottings.  And Maud is especially troubled by some of her notes, the ones concerning her friend Elizabeth: ‘no word from Elizabeth’, ‘haven’t heard from Elizabeth.’ Consequently, Maud is convinced that Elizabeth is missing and that something terrible may have happened to her, especially when she finds her friend’s house empty and in the process of being cleared.

Maud sets about trying to get to the bottom of Elizabeth’s apparent disappearance, (frustrating her daughter in the process) and this theme forms one of two strands that run through the novel. The other thread concerns a mystery from Maud’s past, one signalled by the broken compact Maud unearths in the prologue. This vanity case belonged to Maud’s older sister, Sukey, who disappeared suddenly in the years following the end of the Second World War. At the time of her disappearance, Sukey was relatively newly-married to Frank, a rather shady removals operator with a lucrative sideline in the movement of black-market goods.

Despite Maud’s difficulty in remembering things from the present day, her long-term memory is much sharper, considerably more vivid, and the story moves back in time as Maud recalls the events surrounding Sukey’s vanishing. There’s some neat period detail and dialogue here, elements that feel true to Britain in the 1940s (as far as I can tell from my experience of novels and films produced at this time).

The narrative alternates between Maud’s present-day search for Elizabeth and the post-war years as Maud and her family look for Sukey. In general, Healey manages the transitions between these two timeframes quite skilfully; for example, Maud will see an object that transports her back to a particular scene from her past, one in which the same item (or a similar one) appears.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, Healey ties the two strands together, although the way in which this happens feels a little implausible. I guessed where the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance was heading before our arrival at the resolution, and consequently, this element of the story could have been a little more compelling, more intriguing.

These are fairly small quibbles, however. Elizabeth is Missing is a very good debut, ultimately very moving and not without humour (despite the distress of Maud’s condition). Where this novel really excels is in its depiction of the inner thoughts and feelings of a woman living with dementia, and we see how the mental and physical effects of dementia take their toll on Maud:

Helen sighs again. She’s doing a lot of that lately. She won’t listen, won’t take me seriously, imagines that I want to live in the past. I know what she’s thinking, that I’ve lost my marbles, that Elizabeth is perfectly well at home and I just don’t remember having seen her recently. But it’s not true. I forget things – I know that – but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say. My heartbeat quickens and I clench my teeth. I have a terrible urge to quick Helen under the table. I kick the table leg instead. The shiny salt and pepper shakers rattle against each other, and a wine glass starts to topple. Helen catches it.

‘Mum,’ she says. ‘Be careful. You’ll break something.’

I don’t answer; my teeth are still tight together. I feel I might start screaming, but breaking something, that’s a good idea. That’s exactly what I want to do. I pick up my butter knife and stab it into the black side plate. The china breaks. Helen says something, swearing I think, and somebody rushes towards me. I keep looking at the plate. (pgs. 18-19)

IMG_1430

Elizabeth is Missing is our book group’s choice for July, and I’m sure we’ll have a lively discussion about it when we meet later this week. A couple of us were lucky enough to attend an event where Emma spoke of the book’s themes and sources of inspiration – there’s a link to my write-up of the evening here if you’re interested.

Several other bloggers have reviewed Elizabeth is Missing, so just click on the links if you’d like to read their thoughts: Naomi at The Writes of Women, David Hebblethwaite at Follow the Thread, Lindsay at The Little Reader Library, Susan at A Life in Books and Helen at MadaboutheBooks.

Elizabeth is Missing is published in the UK by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books.