Nirmala Lakshman

Lit by Books: Shining a light on life

If great fiction holds a mirror to life, then in Olive Kitteridge we see ourselves for who we are: vulnerable, tragic, sublime, radiant and all too human… Olive Kitteridge is a unified collection of stories, linked by Olive the retired school teacher, whose larger than life presence fills almost all the stories in this book.

Olive Kitteridge is the unlikely, aging heroine of a collection of short stories named after her. Redoubtable and yet with a radiance, sharp as a whip and at the same time rough and opinionated, she is also loyal, affectionate and tries to understand herself and the world around her. Although an original, Olive Kitteridge has a way about her that is quintessentially ordinary and human, and as she comes to life in these stories, magnificent yet flawed, we realise that the most central truths of the human condition can be found in fiction. The great Latin American writer Mario Vargas Llosa said, “The truths that a novel makes visible...are like most human experiences, relative; they form imprecise entities in which the rule and its exception, or the thesis and antithesis are inseparable or have a similar moral weight.” Truth in fiction is therefore more a matter of recognition; the realisation of a particular person or experience, as somehow being true, even if it is not the literal truth. It becomes an endorsement of one's own existence even if it is based on another life, another country and another time.

Dominating presence

This recognition is absolutely inescapable in this quietly brilliant book by Elizabeth Strout which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Olive Kitteridge is a unified collection of stories, linked by Olive the retired school teacher, whose larger than life presence fills almost all the stories in this book. The narratives are about life in small-town America, in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, and Olive touches the lives of the people of the town in a unique and distinct way. In a charming, imagined conversation between Elizabeth Strout and her character Olive at the end of the book, the author confesses (much to the imaginary Olive's amusement and secret delight) that with “her big intelligent face” Olive is “a force to contend with”. Olive Kitteridge is, in essence, a little bit of every one of us. Her humour, her ferocity, her intelligence and her interfering nature, coupled with a sadness and vulnerability that is frequently heart-wrenching, makes her instantly recognisable because, like many of us, Olive's self-awareness grows slowly as her life edges towards its finish. We begin to understand that the same forthrightness that makes her so daunting also forces her to see herself, to perceive things about herself that may not always be commendable — but it makes her immensely likable.

The people in these stories have their own tales to tell but many of the characters are intimately connected with Olive and her husband Henry, the local pharmacist. Henry's quiet and sad crush on his demure assistant is poignantly set out in the first story, and although Olive's personality just begins to emerge in this vignette, the reader quickly realises her unspoken awareness of her husband's tremulous state of mind. Henry and Olive are among the few old residents of the small seaside town left behind with their memories and tragedies, while the younger generation has moved on in pursuit of different lives. We see many of Olive's aging friends and neighbours clutching at the remnants of time left to them, some sadly and others unsurely, each marked by their own failures and achievements. These stories, written in lush prose, are about heartbreak, quiet loneliness, and sometimes hope set amidst the maple trees, wild rugosa blooms as well as the sailboats and seagulls that hover over the beautiful coastal landscape. While the focus is not only on Olive's character, we cannot escape her, and we quickly come to see that it is Olive and her instinctive but unsentimental empathy for others that makes her stand out in the community. She is still the school teacher whose words her former pupils suddenly recall when they are in trouble, and more momentously, as in the story “Incoming Tide” she unknowingly prevents a tragedy, stopping an old student from suicide. And it is as simple a thing as barging uninvited into his parked car by the marina and speaking to him about random everyday things: “Kevin …liking the sound of her voice...felt adrenaline pouring through him, the familiar, awful intensity, the indefatigable system that wanted to endure.”

In another story she bluntly confronts an anorexic girl, “I don't know who you are, but young lady, you are breaking my heart.” And with an audacity that only she has, she eats a doughnut in front of the astonished starving girl and says with great prescience, “I'm starving too… why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?” It is precisely this honesty, this recognition of the lack in her that makes her so appealing.

Olive can be cutting and difficult too. Her son Christopher, whom she loves achingly and beyond measure, lets her know in no uncertain terms that he has been bruised by her to the point of needing therapy, and tells her that many people cannot bear her. But she can chat with as well as chastise a young hostage taker in a local hospital, although after Henry's death, as she “watches the silence of sunshine, of the world”, she can also be scared. Let it be quick, she thinks when she ponders her own death.

Every story is nuanced and delicate in its exploration of the larger themes, what Olive calls the “big bursts”, the things that “keep you afloat”… marriage, children, intimacies, change, and indeed the often dangerous undercurrents in these, but she also knows that the “little bursts” are important as well. “...The friendly clerk at Bradley's...or the waitress at Dunkin' Donuts who knows how you like your coffee”. At the core of these marvellous tales of ordinary people, we begin to understand, as Olive does, “of how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most it was a sense of safety, in the sea of terror that life increasingly became”. What makes this book rich and unforgettable is that it is ultimately our story; Olive not only lives among us, but is who we are, tragic, vulnerable, bold and hopeful. She shines a light on all our lives.

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout, Random House, USA, 2008.

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Printable version | Feb 21, 2020 10:04:37 PM |

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