TYLER CASKEY is a young Congregational minister in a small New England town in 1959. He lost his wife, a year before, has now lost himself, and is in danger of losing his congregation.
He has two daughters: Katherine, aged five, lives with him, while her toddler sister, Jeannie, is cared for by Caskey’s mother, several hours’ drive away. Katherine has begun to exhibit aggressive and irrational behaviour at school, and wets the bed at night. Tyler finds, to his own disquiet, that he is beginning to see her as “a cross to bear”.
Once admired for his preaching, he is no longer confident about what to say. He has not exactly lost his faith, but cannot find purchase in familiar footholds. Essentially, Caskey is in a spiritual and emotional crisis that his theology and his training has not prepared him for.
The book’s author, Elizabeth Strout, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Olive Kitteridge, opens a window into Casker’s troubled soul. She shines a searching but sympathetic light on his baffled attempts to find a way out of the predicament that life has thrown at him. It is the story of a regular human being in an everyday town, dealing with something that might happen to any person of faith.
Strout has a remarkable way of elevating the ordinary, which reminds me of that other American mistress of the quotidian, Anne Tyler. She shares Casker’s ability to weave stories that respect the nuances of relationship, and create a rich texture of human meaning. And she does so with a surprisingly light and often humorous touch.
The novel’s title comes from Henry Francis Lyte’s famous hymn “Abide with me”. It is Caskey’s personal favourite, and he is chasing, nostalgically, what he calls “The Feeling” — something that he has occasionally, but not recently, experienced — a “profound and irreducible knowledge that God was right there”.
It is as if he had borrowed much of his faith and spirituality from other sources. For instance, his hero is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who had been executed by the Nazis. Figuratively, he wears a wristband with the letters WWBD: “What Would Bonhoeffer Do?” Caskey also has a mild obsession with Roman Catholic saints, to whom, too, he looks for guidance.
The problem is that the weathered quotes from these secondary sources have formed a filter through which he sees the world, and which prevents his dealing with the reality that stares him in the face.
The narrative reveals that this crisis has been a long time coming, having been built up by failures to face up to the challenges of human relationships: the snobbery of his in-laws, the bullying of his insufferable mother, his inability to understand his wife, his feelings of denial and guilt at her sudden death from cancer, and his passivity with his congregation.
“Every night of Tyler’s childhood, his father had said: ‘Always be considerate Tyler. Always think of the other man first.’” This has become so embedded that he wonders who he is, and how he should be. He cannot ask for help or attend to his own needs. As Strout writes: “If Bonhoeffer could spend a year in a prison cell, only to find himself taken naked out into the woods to be hanged, then he, Tyler Caskey, could pay his debts, care for his children, and do his job.”
As much as he feels alone, Casker is not. His housekeeper, his mother, his elder daughter, her teachers, and individuals in his congregation all have hopes and opinions about how he is to act. Their voices — especially their venomous or well-meant gossip — form an interactive, scary, and sometimes hilarious landscape which is perceptively observed and deftly handled by Strout.
The loneliness and sense of abandonment which little Katherine feels is heartbreaking. As Caskey looks in vain to his God for comfort, she looks, also in vain, to her involuntarily absent father. It is she, like a canary in a mine, who raises the alarm.
The novel takes us, with Caskey, into the dark. But the story is a long way short of bleak. It is beautifully human. There is no cynicism about faith, but no glorification, either. And there are no villains: just regular people with flaws.
Abide with Me builds to a climax as, one by one, the props that hold Casker up crumple. But, without giving the game away, there is healing, redemption, salvation, whatever you want to call it. And it is properly satisfying, not trite. There is a believable recognition that, despite being “tugged and pulled by competing forces every minute”, we nevertheless “hold on as best we can”.
Ultimately, this is a book that asks questions about what it means to live a good life. It demonstrates just how critical it is that love not be defined by “putting the other man first”. It also includes learning to love ourselves, and allowing ourselves to be loved. And that, maybe, is where God abides.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout is published by Simon & Schuster at £8.99; 978-0-7434-6228-0.
ABIDE WITH ME — SOME QUESTIONS
- “If you’re always thinking of the other man first, you don’t have to bother with what you’re feeling.” Why do you think Belle emphasises this?
- “I’m so bored I could just puke.” What opportunities are there for women in West Annett in the 1950s? What effect does this have on the community?
- “Are you irritated because he wrote about courage . . . but experienced fear?” What did you make of Tyler Caskey’s relationship with Dietrich Bonhoeffer?
- “Nobody likes a weak man.” Why is Caskey afraid to show weakness? What happens when he does?
- How did you react to Charlie’s story? What do you think will happen next in his relationship with Doris?
- Abide With Me focuses closely on communication, from rumour and gossip to silence and secrets. What do you think Strout is trying to say about the power of speech?
- Connie describes her acts at the county farm as “intimate”. What different sorts of intimacy are explored in the novel?
- What sorts of marital relationships are explored in the novel?
- “Inside me is a slim, beautiful girl.” What does Strout suggest about the difference between the way in which we perceive ourselves and the way in which others perceive us?
- How and why does Strout emphasise the need to receive as well as give love?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 June, we will print extra information about our next book. This is Knowing Anna by Sarah Meyrick. It is published by SPCK at £8.99; 978-1-910-67436-9.
In her early forties, Anna, a wife, mother, and cellist, is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Four months after her death at the age of 42, her friends and family join to walk together the ancient Pilgrims’ Way to Canterbury. Father Stephen, Anna’s parish priest, leads a part of each day in silence and contemplation. Joining him are Anna’s husband, parents, children, and friends, each with their own private grief and ongoing personal lives. Over nine days and 104 miles, six narrators reveal their memories of Anna’s life, walking through grief and loss but also through discovery and secrets.
Sarah Meyrick has worked as a public-relations professional, journalist, and editor. In her spare time she is a voracious reader, a daily runner, and enjoys spending time with her husband and two grown-up children. She is also the director of the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature, which is held yearly in the village of Bloxham, in north Oxfordshire. Meyrick credits her fascination with human behaviour and passion for storytelling to her university studies in Classics and social anthropology. Knowing Anna was her debut novel. Her second, The Restless Wave, will be published by Marylebone House in 2019.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
July: Inside the Wave by Helen Dunmore
August: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry