Review: Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout

There’s no hook in Abide With Me, an early novel by Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge and My Name is Lucy Barton.   I got fifty or so pages in and nearly gave up.  (In fact I had a sneaking suspicion at that juncture that all seemed familiar here and that quite possibly, I had gotten to exactly this point in the book and had given up once before. That deja vu thing that happens with books sometimes.) Why did I persist, this time?  Personal reasons, I guess.  The title popped up when I was searching the library catalogue for CD versions of the hymn of the same name, which was played at my mom’s funeral a couple of years ago.  The hymn has stayed with me as I learn to live in a world that doesn’t have my mother in it.  It’s hard to find stomachable versions of hymns, by the way, without descending into the smug self congratulatory maw of Contemporary Christian.  The best version I’ve found so far is by The Priests, a trio of spraytanned handsome Irish guys in clerical collars.

There is plenty of drama in Abide With Me.  There’s a death at the centre, a couple of murders, rumour and gossip, betrayal, sex, marital infidelity, and lots of secrets.  But almost all of that happens offstage and what the reader gets is aftermath. Decent ordinary people dealing with the aftermath.

The novel introduces an intriguing situation:  a small-town minister, recently bereaved, raising his elder daughter on his own.  The reader is “hooked”, I guess, by wanting to know what happened in the past — what happened to the wife? — and what will happen in the future — how will the little girl survive her grief and the well-intentioned fretting of her teacher?  But there comes a moment about page 42 when I nearly gave up:  the young minister, Tyler, is musing about a 20th Century German Christian martyr named Bonhoeffer.  He “imagined the sound of a German radio broadcast, Bonhoeffer’s clear voice declaring than man’s responsibility against evil lay in action, and then the radio cut off in midsentence by the government authorities”.  I set the book down here, but then, after a while, I picked it up again.  Because Tyler, how ever obtuse, seemed such a good man.  And poor little Katherine, his daughter — so silent, so heartbroken.  And my persistence paid off. By the middle of the book, I couldn’t wait to get back to it, and I gobbled up the last hundred pages in a sitting.

Strout’s subtlety is her genius.  There is a scene between two male characters — the bereaved minister and an adulterous parishioner who hates his guts— and the two men are titanically angry at themselves, the world, and each other, and neither one, in this tense scene, comes anywhere close to even mentioning what’s really on his mind — but still the scene works like crazy, and still the two men somehow manage to communicate something useful to each other despite the bluster. Isn’t that how most of these real life, actual, important conversations in life actually work?  There’s no big revelation, there’s no perfectly articulated speech or explanation — we come to understand what’s really going on with each other in subordinate clauses, in muttered phrases, in indirection.  And it suffices.

The details are wonderful.  The snarl at the back of Katherine’s hair, and the way a kind neighbour brushes it out.  The book broke my heart and then suggested that it might be mended again. Strout invites me to look closely and think deeply and forgive and be human — as Tyler says, “The question is — how do I live my life?  Do I live my life as though it matters?  That our relationship to God, to one another, to our ourselves — matters.”  The climactic scene in the novel has poor beset Tyler Caskey furiously preparing to give his congregation a blast of righteous fury — and boy do they deserve to be taken down a peg, these gossipy cruel smalltown folk.  But no, something entirely different happens, something human and small and unexpected, which gives the congregation an opportunity to become their better selves.

— JoAnn McCaig