Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

American author, Elizabeth Strout

I’m not sure why, yet, but I don’t have a lot of American writers on my shelf and in my line of interest. However, Elizabeth Strout has been there on my literary horizon ever since I saw the film version of her novel Olive Kitteridge (2008) starring the magnificent Francis McDermott. And I’m not sure how but the sequel, Olive Again (2019) is in my pile of books on my bedside table. Then my sister, an avid reader, praised Strout’s Oh William! (2021) – shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – and a visiting friend left me this one, Lucy by the Sea (2022) when she returned home. I read it.

It’s my first pandemic novel. By that I mean it’s the first novel I’ve read that, to some degree, is about the pandemic. Lucy, and her ex-husband, William, leave New York and set up a home in a small house on the Maine coast. He was worried about her and wanted to get her away from the danger.

It’s written in the first person and it reads like a journal. Lucy shares her inner feelings and expectations, usually unfulfilled, along with what she did, who she met, and what she said. It wasn’t long before I realised that she isn’t a very easy woman. I always admire a writer who can create an unlovely character through a 1st person narrative. (The last time I experienced this was in Tim Winton’s Breath (2008)) However, she is self-reflective and so knows not to voice her dislikes too much. She dislikes most things. But she likes Bob, a near neighbour, but not his wife, Margaret. She certainly dislikes the house William has brought her to, the weather, most of the furniture, the grey light, and the loneliness. Lucy’s life is her family: two daughters, their husbands, one she likes, one she doesn’t, William, of course, her ex, and her late second husband, David, whom she misses dreadfully. William also has an ex-wife – she left him taking their daughter – and a half-sister he’s only just met. Needless to say Lucy’s family world is complicated.

Lucy is also surprisingly unaware of the seriousness of the pandemic, even when friends and New York neighbours die because of it. She feels displaced, uneasy, and wonders when she can return to her New York apartment. Set against this general feeling of displacement is the narrative of the events around her and her family told in very plain, uncluttered, and conversational language.

It’s a soft book, and a handsome volume.

By the end she is slightly more aware and accepting of her situation even though her life has changed dramatically.

Strout has written about these characters before in My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), and Oh William! of course; even Olive Kitteridge makes a small appearance in this one.

I enjoyed it, yes, but the interest is solely due to the character of Lucy: how will she deal with hardship, what will she say to her daughter who is mad at her, and what will she do with William after she’s put her nightie back on?

You can buy the ebook or hardback version here.

Here is an interview with Elizabeth Strout about Lucy by the Sea, if you can manage to forgive the rather verbose interviewer.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

British-American crime writer, Raymond Chandler

Writers don’t think too much about genre; writers write what interests them. Genres are more important to booksellers as signposts to help readers find what they might enjoy.

Reading crime fiction is not only about who done it. It’s an escapist adventure into a strange world, almost filmic, where our fundamental assumptions are always confirmed: good, even if a little muddy, wins in the end.

The plot revolves around a rare, valuable and stolen coin, The Brasher Doubloon; a cranky client, two corpses, a wimpy son, wise-cracking dames, lazy police and nasty rich men. You get the picture.

Most crime fiction is written in the first person, which has its limitations. Unlike a third-person god-like narrator who knows everything, what people think and what they want including what will happen in the future, a first person narrator only knows what’s going on in their own head, and relies on what is seen, heard and felt to give clues to character’s motives and wishes. This is paramount in Chandler’s work: descriptions of people are all about physiognomy – the angle if a chin, clothes – the cut of a dress, gives clues to personalities, behaviour, and what might make them either smile at you or shoot you in the back.

“He was a lanky man with carroty short hair growing down to a point on his forehead. He had a long narrow head packed with shabby cunning. Greenish eyes stared under orange eyebrows. His ears were large and might have flapped min a high wind. He had a long nose that would be into things. The whole face was a trained face, a face that would know how to keep a secret, a face that held the effortless composure of a corpse in the morgue.”

All his characters are opportunists, if not after a quick buck, a quick fix, or a hook-up, they’re looking for gaps in your defense, eager to win a point, even if only for a little self-esteem. Characters with suggestive names: Eddie Prue, Jesse Breeze, Spanglet, and Linda Conquest – not unlike character’s names of Charles Dickens: Herbert Pocket, Charles Cheeryble, Bumble, and Mercy Pecksniff. The writing of Chandler is entertaining and lovingly cliché-free; it’s as if he searches for an ever-new cliché, uses it and immediately abandons it…

“Three dizzy-looking dames… all cigarettes and arched eye-brows and go-to-hell expressions.”

“She had eyes like strange sins.”

“Men … faces like lost battles”

“… enough clothes to hide behind a toothpick.”

” … there were quiet voices whispering of love or 10%”

“A tall fine-looking man in a grey suit cut by an angel…”

“women … faces like stale beer…”

“a great long gallows of a man…”

“She looked as flustered as a side of beef.”

“… as unperturbed as a bank manager refusing a loan.”

“You boys are cute as a couple if lost golf balls.”

Many commentators, such as the British crime writer, Mark Billington, praise the characterisation of Chandler’s work, but it’s all in Chandler’s outward description of them. Such commentators don’t realise how much descriptive work they do themselves to arrive at a rounded picture of a character; inspired, of course, by a few well-chosen and succinct words by the writer. This is higher praise, but it not the praise they’re talking about.

Time to Kill, the 1942 screen version of The High Window starring Lloyd Nolan

If anything is going on in anyone’s head it’s never mentioned except as a cause or result of a look, a tone, or snide remark. Raymond Chandler is s master of this. Detailed descriptions of a room, a desk, a face, are iconic: the perceptive awareness of an accomplished private eye like Philip Marlow, Chandler’s alter-ego. He sees everything, even the clues that a reader might miss. There is no psychological self-examination except for the odd purple passage of self-depreciation. There is no romance but more than a hint of the romantic hero, especially in The High Window, where he rescues a damsel in distress, but not from anything as corny as a caped villain, but more from her own self-delusion, bad choices, and shallow vulnerability. Marlow is a good guy, mistrusted but tolerated by the police, hired but not liked by his clients. He’s a loner but his apartment, and especially his kitchen, are neat and clean, unlike his talk to women he doesn’t trust…

“I don’t like this house or you or the air of repression in the joint, or the squeezed down face of the little girl of that twerp of a son you have, or this case, or the truth I’m not told about it and the lies I am told about it and …”

It would be fair to say that this is a minor Chandler; the plot lacks the sensationalism that popular crime fiction has come to nurture, even though it has been filmed twice in the 1940s but neither was a success. It is, however, classic Chandler, all the more enjoyable for the wise-cracking, plain-speaking, and indifferent, but work-man-like Marlow, who would never slap a woman; but then why would he when his wit and words are far more effective.

The Brasher Doubloon, the 1947 film version starring George Montgomery

Chandler, although born in the USA in Chicago in 1888, was raised and educated in England, becoming a British subject in 1907 but returned to America when he was 30. He lost his job as an oil executive in the Great Depression and turned to pulp fiction, studying the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. The Big Sleep was his first published novel and featured for the first time, Philip Marlow. The High Window is the third in the Marlow series.

You can read The High Window as an ebook here at the Canadian site of Project Gutenburg. In Canada it is in the public domain. You can only download it for free if it is out of copyright in your country.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara Pic
American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. A Little Life was short-listed for the 2015 Man-Booker Prize

This is a novel about friendship; no, it’s more than that, it’s about love-ship. It’s a solar system of people, with planets, Willem (an actor), JB (a painter), and Malcolm (an architect), and their hugging friends who hover like moons as they all circle in ever-decreasing orbits around Jude (a lawyer), the sun-like centre; where a career is as important as sex, where sex is fluid and non-defining, where who you think you are can be a million miles away from who others think you are, and where desire is unhinged from the brain and is a simple bodily necessity.

Yes, on one level it is a hymn to this love-ship but it is also a harrowing account of the affects of child sexual abuse and “how far a body will go to protect itself, at all costs. How hard it fights to live. But then the fact is,” she suggests, “our bodies don’t care about us at all.”

Yanagihara puts omnipotence back into the qualities of the third-person narrator: her narrator is fluent in the intricacies of pure math[s] – zero must exist but has it been proven to exist; the legal arguments that define the difference between what is fair and what is right; the architectural pitfalls of urban interior design; the sexual ambivalence of well-heeled twenty-somethings as opposed to the sexual certainty of the under-educated; and the life-threatening aspects and the psychological roller-coaster ride of a physical and emotional retard whose depths of self-loathing are bottomless, but who is, by every account, the most intelligent of the lot of them. This character, Jude St Francis, whose little life this book is about, is the emotional heart of this group of friends living in and around New York City, and we are not spared any of the tragic, horrific, and dehumanising aspects of his existence and upbringing and it is all due to Yanagihara’s skill that his life is so enthralling. She makes it very clear that intelligence can overcome even the most debilitating consequences, while at the same time proving that, in regards to the self, intelligence has very little traction.

Yanagihara’s prose is informal and chatty (conjunctions often begin new ideas, just like a chat with your neighbour), dense (a paragraph can contain the past, the future, and the present – she loves dashes and brackets), and of course her characters are flawed (after-all there are no novelistic perfect characters) but her description of them is pure, true, but non-judgemental; unlike her characters’ descriptions of each other.

And even though it is difficult at any given moment to understand where the narrative is on its own timeline there is a feeling of moving forward; that despite the rich characterisation and back-story anecdotes a narrative is unfolding. She pulls no punches so even as you are enjoying a moment of happiness in Jude’s chaotic, damaged, but professionally charmed life, there is a dread in your guts that it could all come tumbling down disastrously, on the next page. Sometimes you feel like you want to skip a bit, so detailed and horrendous are the descriptions of moments in Jude’s life but the skipping moment is always voyeuristically delayed and finally when the dread is over you can feel that lump in your throat slowly melting away and you can breath evenly again.

Hanya Yanagihara is an American writer and editor of Hawaiian extraction and currently works as the deputy editor of The New York Times Style magazine. Her first novel, The People in the Trees, was considered one of the best in 2013.

I wrote my second novel, A Little Life, in what I still think of as a fever dream: for 18 months, I was unable to properly concentrate on anything else … but if the actual writing of the book was brief, it’s only now that I realise that I had been thinking of this novel for far longer. I began collecting photography when I was 26, 14 years ago; and when I actually began writing, it was these images I returned to, again and again: they provided a sort of tonal sound check, as it were … Now that the book is done, I realize that these images are now so inextricable from the book — and my experience of writing it — that looking at them again is somehow jolting: they’ve become a visual diary of that year and a half, and I find myself unable to look at them without thinking of the life of my novel.

Hanya Yanagihara (

Yanagihara is not interested in marriage; it is not for her, nor for her friends, nor for her characters. A Little Life makes us aware of the meaning of the word, family: how we create them, keep them, succour them, honour them, even when there are no blood-ties, the lack of which seemingly makes this family stronger, truer, safer, more honourable.

This is the first book I can remember reading that made me cry (there are also a lot of laughs, mainly of recognition) well before the half-way mark; it is however, despite the title, a big book. If you find the first fifty pages just a blur of dense information persevere, it is very much worth it.

A great book!