Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Books – Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Kitteridge, published in 2008, lies somewhere in between a novel and a collection of short stories. It is a beautiful, moving and superbly written book, about both the ordinariness of life and the surprises it can bring. It dips in and out of the lives of various residents of the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, linked by the recurring character of Olive Kitteridge, a retired maths teacher.

What I loved about Olive Kitteridge was its form. It felt like a quieter, softer version of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, another novel-turned-collection-of-interconnected-short-stories that I loved. The form offers us snapshots into the lives of the other residents of the town of Maine, as well as giving us a full view of Olive herself, from various different angles and through various different lenses. I love the way the stories interweaved, that way characters who are central to one story are mentioned in passing in another, the way we glimpse characters from different angles. In general my favourite stories are those where Olive takes a back seat and is a minor, not a major, character – ‘Pharmacy’, ‘Starving’, ‘Ship in a Bottle’, ‘Criminal’. Indeed, if we class these for a moment as stories not chapters (of course they’re both and neither, and it doesn’t really matter which), then ‘Pharmacy’ is quite possibly my favourite short story that I have ever read.
Strout’s strength is absolutely character. Her characters are drawn and sustained just superbly. That she so deftly captures such human characters in so small a space as in some of her stories is truly astounding. There are, naturally, a lot of characters in this book, but every single one feels deep, rounded and complex. Rebecca Brown, Kevin Coulson, Harmon, Julie Harwood, and so many more. My favourite characters in the book are probably Henry Kitteridge and Denise Thibodeau, around whom ‘Pharmacy’ focuses. The characters of and interaction between these two feels so true to life and so wonderfully subtle.

Olive Kitteridge herself of course takes centre-stage in the book as a whole. Olive truly is a brilliant character, partly because she is not always a very nice one. She is difficult, complicated, rude, at times frightening – and yet we also see her as intensely empathic, a great feeler if not always a great talker. By seeing her from so many different perspectives – many of whom do not like her – as well as her own, we get a very interesting and complex vision of Olive, something I enjoyed. For example, one of my favourite moments in the book is Olive’s appearance in ‘Starving’. We don’t always like her completely, but we feel for her and we understand her. It’s cleverly done.

In truth I probably would have preferred to see less from Olive’s perspective; about half the stories in the book focus on her, and I always preferred seeing her from the outside. The book’s form allows it an unusual opportunity of showing a person through a wide variety of viewpoints; this is used, certainly, but I feel like it could have been used more. I felt like some of the stories from Olive’s perspective didn’t make full use of the novel’s form. Bizarrely, then, the only tiny criticism I have of Olive Kitteridge is that I wish it had had a little less Olive Kitteridge in it. This is certainly a minor criticism, if that; it’s probably merely personal preference. The work teeters between being a book about Olive Kitteridge herself, and a book about the various inhabitants of Crosby. The title implies it’s the former, as do some of the stories; but other stories, in which Olive features but as a passing comment, imply that it’s the latter. And I think I half wanted to be the latter. Regardless, I’m not sure it matters which it is; and even if neither the author nor the reader is decided, it doesn’t lessen the reading experience.

Strout’s writing is flawless, consistently beautiful. The book has a calm and almost old-fashioned tone. Even in the stories most definitely set in the 2000s, I had a feeling they were earlier in the twentieth century. However, I liked this; the tone of the book suits both Olive and the town in which she lives; both seem to be struggling to come to terms with the twenty-first century. Moreover, the writing adjusts to fit the tone of each story, and as the narrative slips in and out of different characters’ minds, it changes pace. Olive Kitteridge has a polished balance between stories of dramatic events and stories of utter normality, of the day-to-day lives of these people, small moments that somehow take on great significant. I found this aspect of the book very effective, and at times intensively moving.

So Olive Kitteridge is a beautiful, subtle, brilliant book. Strout’s characters feel human and complex, and novel’s form is effective, and pleasantly different. It is a complex look at life, people and place, in a touching and intelligent way. All in all, I definitely recommend this book.

Greatest strength: Probably Strout’s beautiful writing and the way it allows her to portray her characters.

Greatest weakness: As I said, I would have liked less actually from Olive’s perspective, but this is a very minor point.

Let’s finish on a quote: ‘All these lives… All the stories we never know.’

Next week: A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki 

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