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Incarcerated in the wrong life
on 20 July 2013
Brothers Jim and Bob Burgess escape the provincial world of Shirley Falls, Maine for employment as New York lawyers. In contrast to the ambitious high-flyer Jim, Bob is "a nice guy" but portrayed as a bit of a failure (despite being a qualified lawyer), whose borderline alcoholism may have its roots in his early childhood, when he played a part in the tragic event that blighted his family. When the brothers' dysfunctional nephew commits a criminal act against the Somali immigrants who have begun to arouse the suspicious resentment of the conservative white community of Shirley Falls, Jim and Bob are forced to revisit the town, and old memories.
The strongest aspect for me is the core of the book, the portrayal of the complex relationship between the two brothers, and there are some wry, realistic dialogues. On the other hand, my enthusiasm was eroded from the outset by the to my mind unnecessary device of using a prologue to provide a narrator's advance summary of some of the key facts of the book (more than I have above), with the implication that the following chapters are her "story of the Burgess kids", possibly including a degree of speculation since, "Nobody ever knows anyone".
The story tends to lack dramatic tension, since opportunities to develop or explore situations are frequently missed. Yet plots are probably less important to Elizabeth Strout than people's thoughts and behaviour. Although it is probably meant to be a kind of "stream of consciousness", the many long, rambling sentences with banal word repetition grated on me. This may be a cultural thing - a British reader's criticism of a style that is accepted as the norm in modern American writing. Also, the continual switching between at least six points of view make the story often seem unfocused.
So, I swung between thinking this either "in the mould of Anne Tyler" or "soft-centred women's magazine material". My doubts were allayed in Book 4 which, with an increase in pace and improvement in the quality of the writing, brings the threads together for the unpredictable ending which proves satisfying for those who like to be left with a little room to imagine what they wish.