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Tuesday October 22, 2013 MYT 12:30:00 AM
Tuesday October 22, 2013 MYT 8:15:06 AM
By SHENA MACKAY
The Burgess Boys
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 320 pages
ELIZABETH Strout is a Pulitzer prize-winning American writer whose reputation has grown steadily since her first novel, Amy And Isabelle, which was shortlisted for the Orange prize (now the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction). She also works as a lawyer, and her expertise informs the plot of The Burgess Boys, where a legal drama is at the centre of the story.
Among her greatest achievements is the creation of the fictional small town Shirley Falls, Maine, the setting for several of her works, including this remarkable novel.
Shirley Falls represents many places where the manufacturing industry has died, the young people have left and newcomers, in this case Somali immigrants with memories of atrocities and loss, have made their homes.
The Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, are New York lawyers on the verge of mid-life crises. They are remembered in their hometown of Shirley Falls for two reasons; the first is that when they were children, little Bob caused the car accident that changed all their lives.
Until then, the Burgesses were a picture-perfect family who lived in a yellow house on top of a hill.
Then came the day their father left the children in the car for a few minutes while he fixed the mailbox, and it rolled down the hill and killed him.
Bob, disobeying strict instructions, had been fiddling with the gears. It was an event so terrible that the family has never spoken of it.
The other reason for the Burgess family’s local fame came later, when Jim, as the defence lawyer in the celebrity trial of a popular singer, obtained an acquittal. That case, later overshadowed by the OJ Simpson trial, launched him on a glittering career.
Jim is the golden boy to whom all the family looks for salvation: brother Bob, in contrast, works for legal aid, is divorced and childless.
Then there is Susan, the third sibling, who has stayed behind in Shirley Falls. Susan was a pretty child but nobody liked her very much. Perhaps if her daddy had lived she would have blossomed, but as it is, her husband has left her and she lives with her teenage son Zach, who precipitates the crisis of the novel.
Zach, fatherless, friendless, fits the profile of the kid who turns a machine gun on his classmates, but instead he perpetrates a hate crime of the most monumental offensiveness, ignorance and ineptitude during Ramadan.
Susan calls her brothers for help, and Bob and Jim return to Shirley Falls when Zach is arrested and the incident gains nation-wide notoriety.
It might come as no surprise that Jim, who habitually belittles his little brother – his terms of endearment are “Knucklehead” and “Slob-dog” – is not all that he seems, or that his snobbish wife,
Helen, though she is accorded her own poignancy, is essentially hateful, or that neither was the perfect parent they supposed themselves to be.
Their hubris, complacency and, on occasion, malice, will be punished, and yet they are not condemned entirely.
In the end, though, this is not a story of good versus evil but a complex and bold examination of political and family relationships, of the long-term effect of guilt and lies, of people’s motives and failures and muddled intentions.
The image of the Ramadan incident persists, like the yellow house on the hill, as strongly as anything in this engrossing, memorable and, despite everything, hopeful bulletin from Shirley Falls. – Guardian News & Media
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The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout, Simon & Schuster, books, review
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