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Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

26 November 2021

Unknowing is the theme here, Anthony Phillips finds

HOW well do you know others — especially those close to you? Even more pertinent, how well do you know yourself? These are the painful challenges with which the reader of Elizabeth Strout’s brilliant new novel is faced.

Once again, we encounter her heroine Lucy Barton, a successful writer living in New York, who here acts as narrator. She is mourning her second, much loved husband, David, while at the same time relying on her first husband of 20 years, William, a long-time if sporadic confidant, to help her. “William is the only person I ever felt safe with. He is the only home I ever had.”

William, too, a serial adulterer, needs Lucy, as, deserted by his third wife, Estelle, he battles night terrors involving his late mother, Catherine, whose presence, even though she is dead, permeates both their lives. It is through Estelle’s last Christmas gift to William: a subscription to an ancestry website, which acts as the Pandora’s box to reveal hidden secrets so shocking that they painfully test William and Lucy’s relationship.

Much is made in the novel of the background of the participants, particularly regarding their wealth — or lack of it — and the love, or lack of it, that they received in childhood. In a conversation with her daughters about the affairs that both Lucy and William have had, the younger one says to her mother: “I don’t understand anything in this life,” to which her mother replies, “I don’t either.”

The journey with William through a desolate Maine countryside to uncover what the ancestry website has revealed leads Lucy to an understanding of herself and her dependence on William which, without that journey, she could never have envisaged.

As a study in intimacy, both constructive and destructive, the novel could not be bettered. It contains many warnings, but also great understanding of the fragility of what it means to be human. As William put it, “When does a person choose anything — we just do — we just do, Lucy?”

But it is not knowing that is the core of this novel. As Lucy comments, “This is the way of life: the many things we do not know until it is too late.” So the novel concludes with Lucy’s recognition that we are all mysteries: “This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.” The ultimate problem is that we are even mysteries to ourselves.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Oh William!
Elizabeth Strout
Viking £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.49

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