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19 June 2017updated 20 Jun 2017 2:13pm

Anything Is Possible explores the puzzling complexity of relationships

The lives in Elizabeth Strout’s new novel are prisms, held up to the light and flashing out an infinite spectrum of interpretation.

By Erica Wagner

Pete knows his sister is coming home. Or, at least, towards home: she is heading to Chicago on a book tour, and Chicago is not so far from Amgash, where they grew up, where Pete still lives.

He has not seen his sister for 17 years. She has become a well-known writer during those years; someone whose life is utterly different from what they both knew.

He felt a sense of awe that she was who she was: she had left this tiny house, this small town, the poverty they had endured – she’d left it all, and moved to New York City, and she was, in his eyes, famous.

The last time we met Lucy Barton she was in the hospital; or, rather, she was a writer recalling a stay in hospital, some time in the mid-1980s. She had gone to have her appendix removed but an infection forced her to extend her stay.

Unexpectedly, her mother arrived to visit, staying by her bedside, gossiping with her, telling stories of the lives back in that small Illinois town where Lucy and Pete and their sister, Vicky, were raised. The hospital room had a view of the Chrysler Building: Lucy had come a long, long way from the poverty and desperation of her childhood, and Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, was an elliptical reflection on whether it is possible to escape from the past.

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Anything Is Possible is a companion volume to that book. It is set in the approximate present, when Lucy is, indeed, going to Chicago on a book tour, having published what is described as a memoir. Is that “memoir” My Name Is Lucy Barton?

It may well be, though Strout leaves the possibility hanging in the air. The focus here is on the lives of the townsfolk glimpsed in the earlier book. It is structured – like Strout’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge – as a series of linked stories that connect the people from a small town whether they want those connections or not.

It would be perfectly possible to read Anything Is Possible without having read My Name Is Lucy Barton; that would, however, be a shame. Lucy Barton has already given the reader the sense that no tale is to be trusted. As Lucy listens to her mother’s stories, we are invited to question their veracity: they are presented not only as gossip, but also as an offering, a way in which the mother might try to repair her damaged relationship with her daughter.

In Lucy Barton, Lucy’s mother tells the story of Kathie Nicely, who has an affair with one of the teachers at her children’s school. Lucy is left distraught by the story: her mother’s vantage point is very different. In Anything Is Possible, Patty Nicely, Kathie’s daughter, recalls finding her mother in bed with a lover. We see the effect of her parents’ divorce on her life and her attempts to find a new path.

Patty will forge a bond with Charlie Macauley, the Vietnam veteran glimpsed in the previous book, a man who cannot chase away his demons. And the story that Lucy’s mother tells about “Mississippi Mary” turns out to have another chapter in Anything Is Possible.

This web of narrative demonstrates Strout’s vision of the puzzling complexity of human relationships. The lives here are prisms, held up to the light and flashing out an infinite spectrum of interpretation. One story is Lucy’s own: when she does return to her home town to meet her siblings she suffers a panic attack as memories of their brutal childhood come ever closer. Lucy the feted author is in danger of losing control of the story she has told to herself about their lives. “It was not that bad,” she insists. “It was exactly that bad, Lucy,” her sister says.

There is always darkness under the surface here; it is often much nearer than that. The publisher’s description of the book refers to “the deep bonds of family” and “the hope that comes with reconciliation”, but those bonds can be imprisoning and the reconciliation is often of a very qualified kind. Anything Is Possible makes an Escher staircase of story and perspective. Strout’s prose, clear as water, refrains from judgement, evoking only the true empathy that comes with understanding the difficulty of any life, every life, in any and every circumstance.

Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Viking, 254pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel