Tuesday 7 January 2014

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

There's more than a hint of 'chickens coming home to roost' in Elizabeth Strout's novel, The Burgess Boys, where a thoughtless incident throws a family into turmoil and stirs up the past.
    Bob Burgess has grown up under the cloud of an event that happened when he was four years old. Carrying the burden of blame for an accident that killed his father, Bob has never reached the heights of success of older brother Jim, a cut-throat defence lawyer. Instead he has remained a legal aid attorney, who cannot cope with the stress of the courtroom.
    Now in their fifties and living in New York, the brothers are drawn back to their hometown of Shirley Falls, Maine, when their sister Susan phones for help. Her nineteen-year-old son Zach, socially awkward and unpreposessing, has apparently hurled a pig's head into the mosque of the local Somali community. The DA's office, social groups and the police are all baying for blood, leaving Zach feeling terrified and isolated.
    Zach's problem brings the family back together, but there is blame, scorn and acrimony flying around as issues from the past are slowly revealed or bubble beneath the surface of the interactions between these three very different siblings.
    Bob is kind-hearted but also bumbling, slobbish and inclined to drink too much. Susan is unfulfilled and bitter over her failed marriage and unable to provide a welcoming home for her son or the lodger, Mrs Drinkwater. And Jim is arrogant and unfeeling, so pleased with himself he misses all the danger signs that show he's making matters worse.
    There's also Jim's wife, posh and fussy Helen, restless now her children have left home for college. And Pam, Bob's ex-wife, who still meets Bob regularly for a good chat about things, mainly her problems, and who will always be a part of Bob's 'family'.
    The storyline intersperces scenes with the Burgesses with those concerning immigrant, Abdikarim Ahmed, one of the small but very visible group of Somali refugees now living in Shirley Falls. He feels a nagging fear after the mosque incident, and is full of regret for the loss of his son during an act of violence back home, but somehow it is Ahmed who could make the difference to how things turn out.
    In spite of their flaws, these are all wonderful characters, and oddly sympathetic, revealling through natural, passionate and sometimes quirkily comical dialogue so much of what it is to be an ordinary human being caught up in events that are larger than ourselves. But mostly this is a book about family - how relationships can weather even the most difficult storms and how family support at its best can help you be the best you can be. I loved this quote from near the end of the book when Jim is going through a rough patch:

    'What am I going to do, Bob? I have no family.'
    'You have family,' Bob said. 'You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be a kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That's called family.'

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