The book group has followed the Lucy Barton novels by Elizabeth Strout so we were interested to read the third in the Amgash series Oh William! (2022) which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize this year. Amgash was of course the remote settlement where Lucy grew up in abject poverty and in an abusive home before marrying William, moving to New York and becoming a successful novelist.
Lucy is now 43, a widow grieving for her beloved second husband David. William turns to her about his recurring nightmares and when his third wife leaves him, becomes even closer to Lucy. Much of the novel centres round his discovery that he has a half-sister, abandoned by his mother and the journey he and Lucy make to the frozen potato fields of North Maine to find her. This is not a story about a happy reunion but about what they learn about William’s mother and the way that alters Lucy’s view of life and relationships.
Oh William! Is about a family and relationships. The joy and pain of seeing children grow up and experiencing their own joys and suffering; the nuances of interactions between people and how we can flicker between irritation and pleasure in a relationship. The fact that we can never fully know another and a realization that we can only recognise but not understand other people.
All this is written in a conversational style, much like reading a diary or listening to Lucy over a cup of tea, Earl Gray probably. It is a deceptively well-crafted conversation, however. Lucy starts sentences but breaks off in the middle, she digresses and changes her mind, she makes effective use of the simple short sentence and phrases like ‘I guess’ and all this leads to a rhythmic prose that some have called ‘luminous’ or ‘radiant’ . Her use of imagery is spare, but she produces memorable images like her description of the terror of grief quoted above.
We didn’t all enjoy the novel – some found it depressing and would have preferred a stronger narrative. If you enjoy language in all its rhythms, subtlety and nuance then you will enjoy the book, but if you prefer more action then perhaps this novel is not for you – but you may enjoy our next novel, the historical thriller by Robert Harris Act of Oblivion.