Category Archives: 500 Must-Read Literary Fiction

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067695
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 208
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

There are times when you stumble on books, do not read them, or read a couple of pages and drop them. You pick them up again and do not get past a couple of pages. You pick it up again (the specific, dreaded book in question) and yet you just cannot seem to make it beyond the thirtieth page or so. Till one fine day, you pick it up and voila! You just cannot seem to stop reading it. In fact, you don’t want the book to end. You want it to continue, to unravel its secrets, the words that consume you and in turn make you think things about your life.

Art is almost a replica of life. They say it imitates life. I say, it just is. “My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout may not resonate page by page or in the overall sense of plot, but there are places where it will take your breath away (it at least did that to me). It is a very regular story or so it seems.

Lucy Barton is unwell. She is undergoing a minor surgery and is in the hospital. It is the early 90s (not specified but you can more or less figure). Her mother visits her and stays with her for five days. The book opens with them speaking of the old days – of Lucy’s childhood, her siblings and how they lived.

That is when the secrets tumble and questions come to the fore – them being born to poverty, the time her parents locked her in a truck with a snake (why), the time her father humiliated her brother, calling him a “fucking faggot” in front of everyone after he was caught trying Mom’s high heels. We can see the family is beyond dysfunctional and redemption of any kind. Lucy is wounded, and yet she is happily married (or so we think), with two children and is on the way to becoming a writer.

Strout speaks of marriage, family, children, love, homosexuality and so much more through Lucy. And yet she makes Lucy such an unreliable narrator that you are confused but want to know so much more and after a point you do not care, if Lucy is telling the truth or not. You believe her anyway. The book is pretty much rooted in Lucy’s childhood and her reactions to things as she is an adult comes from a deep, dark, lonely place.

On the surface, “My Name is Lucy Barton” may not seem much of a book, but as you dive into its pages, you can see it for what it is and if you are looking for more answers, then there’s the sequel “Anything is Possible” (which I need to get to as soon as possible). Strout proves that brevity could most of the time be the best tool used in fiction. This book is less than two hundred pages and yet it is not a fast read. You will mull and ponder over what you read. Perhaps even go back to some sentences.

Here are some of my favourite quotes:

“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”

“But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.”

“Because we all love imperfectly.”

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Go Went Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck. Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky

Go Went Gone Title: Go Went Gone
Author: Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
Publisher: Portobello Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846276200
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 304
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

“Go Went Gone” is an unusual book. Also, it isn’t an easy read. At least, it wasn’t for me. It took me a while to get into the book and understand its nuances. However, once I was say three chapters in, I started enjoying this read a lot, actually to a point that I felt sad when the book ended. Erpenbeck has always taken on issues so huge in her books and actually delivered. I remember reading “The End of Days” and “Visitation” and being awestruck by the writing. And just like those books, “Go Went Gone” is a book that talks of the impact of the political on personal and what place does the past and present have in history after all.

Richard has spent his life as a university professor, immersed in books and ideas and has now retired with nothing to do. He steps into the streets of Berlin and discovers a new community on Alexanderplatz – a tent city of sorts, established by African asylum seekers. He is confused. On one hand, he wants to get to know these new people and on the other he hesitates.

I loved the simplicity with which the plot is unravelled and yet there is so much going on – the complex layers of race, class, community and prejudice. What struck me the most was Richard’s ageing and his reluctance to change and at the same time his curiosity toward it as well. The writing is subtle enough to give readers signs and cues as the story moves along, which makes Jenny Erpenbeck truly one of the best European writers there is. She slices the book scene by scene – so much so that isolated situations and scenes come together so beautifully – even if at a later stage. She also at the same time, takes no sides. She doesn’t want Richard to be a caricature and also understands his point of view.

The political angles in the book are real – the Western ideologies and stance toward the European refugee crisis and how it can be solved for. More than anything else though, it is the story of one man who has more in common with people he doesn’t know than he realizes.“Go Went Gone” is the kind of read that cannot be gulped in one go. It must be savoured. And yes please pay attention to the silences in scenes as well – that say so much and yet can be missed if you look the other way.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire Title: Home Fire
Author: Kamila Shamsie
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408886786
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 264
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

I will try doing some justice to the book with my review. I will only try. “Home Fire” is one of those books that come when you least expect them to and leave you stunned, make you feel a thousand things, and then pretend that nothing has ever happened. There is the storm and also the lull at the same time. When that happens to me, while reading a book, I know that the book will stay for a long time.

Shamsie’s prose is so evocative and tender that you can feel the characters trying very hard to balance themselves – their emotions and their motives more than anything else. “Home Fire” as most people have said and so will I, is an adaptation or inspired by “Antigone”. Antigone, a teenage girl is forced to choose between obeying the law of the land (her uncle, the king of Thebes, has forbidden the burial of a traitor who happens to be her brother Polynices who declared war on the city and in the process kills his own brother Eteocles) and religious law and sentiments toward her brother. The good brother gets the funeral and the so-called bad brother doesn’t. Antigone then must decide if she wants to give Polynices a burial or not, the punishment for which is death penalty.

I remember watching Antigone a long time ago. Ratna Pathak Shah was Antigone and I could not get images out of the play out of my mind as I read “Home Fire”. Art does cross boundaries. Anyway, back to “Home Fire”. This is the same dilemma faced by Aneeka, as of course Home Fire is loosely based on the play by Sophocles. Aneeka’s twin brother Parvaiz has left London to work for the media arm of Isis, after knowing about their father’s death. Their sister Isma tells the police where he is gone and Aneeka is most angry, almost to the point of telling her that they have no sister. Isma is the older sister to the twins who has taken care of them like a mother. She is the voice of reason, while Aneeka’s voice is that of strong emotion. Isma meets Eamonn (, while she is studying in the US and he is on a holiday. There is a connection. However, on his return to US of A, he falls in love with Aneeka, who will go to any lengths to go home and search for her brother.

Shamsie raises the issues of love, freedom, longing, exile (from a beloved and from a country), what home truly is and of course the most underlined theme of all: xenophobia and what it is to be Muslim in modern times. There is so much going on in the book that I had to stop, hold my breath or sometimes just wait till I finish gasping and then turn the pages once again. Her writing is stunning and more than anything else, she has this quality to speak with you and anyone else through her emotions. Her words are universal. She also makes Antigone accessible but after a while the story of Antigone is merely a skeletal framework while the story of Aneeka, Isma and Parvaiz is what keeps you glued.

“Home Fire” truly deserves a place not only in the long-list for the Man Booker Prize 2017 but also in the short-list and perhaps even the winner. The book makes you see your world for what it is and is most emotional of her works if you ask me. In fact, I think, this is my most favourite of her books. A read which you will not forget.