The Burgess Boys. Elizabeth Strout.

Strout, Elizabeth. The Burgess Boys. Random House, New York. 2013. F; 5/13.

I remember reading this author’s linked short-story collection Olive Kittredge and being dazzled. This one is the follow-on big-fiction package, and it’s less tidy, less polished, and I would say more ambitious. I ended up deciding its importance depends on who’s reading it.

Two brothers, both lawyers, couldn’t be more different from one another. Jim is Mr. Perfect, the idealized protective father-figure everyone would love to rely on. Rich, famous, handsome, tough. Bob chronically settles for second place. Underachieving, stoop-shouldered, alone, vulnerable. Single mum sister Susan with her helpless depressed wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time teenager Zachary completes the family. The foreground plot is the boys’ effort to limit harm when Zach gets in trouble with the Somali community in their small New England hometown, against a background of the Burgess’s father’s accidental death, ostensibly caused by Bob as a little boy.

Huge trouble everybody knows and hates permeate: misunderstanding, impossible-to-reconcile points of view, the impact of a deeply ambiguous family, moral justification, and an enormous burden of wrongdoing, guilt, alienation, and punishment. And consistent with all that trouble I found the style (at least at first) disconnected, hard-to-take, dark, and bewildering. So much so I had to struggle not to dislike most of the characters at the start. There will be a lot of people who picked the book up for more of the lovely Olive Kittredge experience querulously scratching their heads, at least through the first third or so.

But aesthetically this novel is about conversion. (PLOT ALERT) The Burgess boys switch places, Zachary and Susan both come into their own (END PLOT ALERT) and other major and minor characters change from shadow to substance. But these changes invite (mostly I suppose for incurable disbelief-suspenders) us in. I had my art-gallery epiphany along about page 91 when Abdikarim, one of the beaten-up, isolated, and frightened Somalis, comes to life. And gradually all the major characters similarly fill in like very good colour prints developing in an old-fashioned chemical bath. Prepared as we are by the relentlessly monochrome bad-ass in the early going we can’t miss the brightening, and the difference. And, for me, what a difference.

There are important plot elements and character shadings that are just awkward, and they aren’t all confined to the early chapters. (PLOT ALERT) Was it intentional that Jim’s description of how the dad really died (and his unforgivable shifting of the blame) occurs through an automotive mechanism (pushing in the clutch) that wouldn’t have let the car keep rolling if he’d just taken his foot off the pedal (END PLOT ALERT)? I found Pam and Helen unrealistically consistent in their self-centeredness, although their relative simplicity felt like a necessary relief from the harsh contrasts of their husbands. But there are also lovely moments like Pam’s first experience of adulthood in the small-town bakery.

This makes me wonder what the observer’s conversion epiphany I sometimes have is.  What can we call the thing that switches the lights on so suddenly and dramatically? Why do I see everything in the art gallery completely differently after my first connection with one of the pieces? What part of that experience is “just me” exercising my educatedly gullible imagination and what part is an intrinsic precious and difficult-to-achieve characteristic of a beautiful object in front of me? Of course it’s both but where do you draw the line? And then why you might ask am I fussing: who cares?

We can share more or less erudite appreciation of all sorts of things, but in the end we have our own life and being illuminated and warmed the way I was by this story is an irreproducible event. For many readers Burgess Boys will be a slightly awkward anticlimactic following-the-prizewinner book that will bridge over until the next one comes along. Unless the lightbulb also goes on for you . My technicolor score: 9.1

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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