The language, pure smalltown America, is glorious. Olive believes “Phooey” is an appropriate response to almost any situation. A new neighbour, who seems a bit dull, is instantly christened “Mousy-Pants”. It is fascinating to watch as Olive grows into her eighties, absolutely livid at the idea that she may need to buy Depend incontinence underwear.
Strout has said that she doesn’t know why readers like Olive so much, except that she is complicated, like all of us. But I think we all have had an Olive in our lives whom we never got to know. Mine was a teacher named Gertrude. It is Strout’s genius to reveal them to us in all their idiosyncratic glory. Olive, again? Oh yes, I do think so.
There’s a lot of talk these days about the demise of the novel. If it isn’t quite dead, one feels, then it’s stuck on a trolley, heading for ITU. But Strout’s craft is utterly alive. And while you can feel the ghosts of others in these pages – Updike and Alice Munro, perhaps even a touch of Faulkner and a whiff of Chekhov – there is, in her writing, something quite her own. That interest in life’s small resurrections, so quietly hidden in that titular pun (O live, again), rings out clearly in every page of this book. To read this book is to get the sense that stories, too, are a redemptive force. They give us a second chance at things. A way to live – and see – things again, anew.
Throughout the book, disparate, disconnected people share transformative moments ... as the novel approaches its conclusion, Olive finds solace in female friendship, and Strout peels back the layers of her heroine’s confidence and bravura to reveal a childhood rich in psychological complexity. Olive, Again is a tour de force. With extraordinary economy of prose – few writers can pack so much emotion, so much detail into a single paragraph – Strout immerses us in the lives of her characters, each so authentically drawn as to be deserving of an entire novel themselves. Compassionate, masterly and profound, this is a writer at the height of her powers.
Long a chronicler of life’s painfulness, Strout moves into even darker territory here. There are compensations – including an unlikely friendship – but uncertainty surrounds even these. Across her novels, Strout has created a living community whose members know sorrows large and small. They must find satisfaction where they can: children who, at least, are not on drugs; remaining strength; a wife whose face brightens when her husband enters the house, who puts down her book and says ‘Hi there’ to him. Such details give Olive, Again considerable poignancy, at which its eponymous character would, in all likelihood, mightily scoff.
Strout has been revisiting these themes in her meticulous realist fiction through half a dozen books now. They are all admirably accomplished, written with sharp-witted exactitude, if sometimes almost too spare ... in Olive Kitteridge, Strout has created one of those rare characters...so vivid and humorous that they seem to take on a life independent of the story framing them.
Elizabeth Strout’s novels are built of these quiet moments of realisation: epiphanies in which characters come to understand something about themselves, or their relationships with other people, despite not quite having the language to articulate it... That said, Olive, Again is, in its way, a perfect novel: as compelling and unsettling as anything Strout has written. But its perfection is of a brittle kind, a kind that feels in the end wearying and even slightly manipulative. How little we can know each other, it says. How strange and temporary our feelings are. How slight and overwhelming they can be. How quickly they pass. How soon they end.
Strout is an uncomfortable writer and Olive Kitteridge is the ultimate unlikeable heroine. She tells a woman visiting a fellow resident at the nursing home she comes to live in, “Your mother called me a cunt” but is good enough to admit “Oh, I deserved it”, which is perhaps fortunate, given that it transpires the cursing woman had died that week. Death stalks these pages and while Strout’s unsettling prose won’t be for everyone, she reveals how odd our own mortality is to each of us as Olive reflects, “She was going to die. It seemed extraordinary to her, amazing. She had never really believed it before.”
Strout’s genius is in making her characters do things that are wholly believable, even when their behaviour is shocking. Olive, Again might well be a shade more sentimental than the first book and without quite so many lacerating truths, but Strout always manages to undercut the cosiness of small-town life with a moment that is comic, sinister or ugly: a manky old toenail peeking through a sock, an inappropriate erection. She is marvellously eloquent on the indignities of old age and how much death, its imminence and its aftermath, teaches us about life. But in some ways, Olive never mellows.
A most welcome return for the contrary, contradictory Olive (of Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge fame) who is getting older and frailer but—happily for the reader—remains as brutally honest and endearing as ever. Here Olive marries for the second time, to bumptious widower Jack Kennison, a former Harvard academic, and approaches a reconciliation with her estranged son Christopher and his wife Ann, of whom she does not approve.