I’ve just put back Abide with me by Elizabeth Strout on my little bookshelf. It has been a very interesting experience. I have to say, if I read a lot, it’s not really the kind of fiction I usually enjoy. My feelings are quite mitigated, not because of the quality of the narrative nor Strout’s writing… and frankly, it’s the first time I feel so confused over a book that I don’t even know where to start. So, I will play it safe and give a quick summary of the story.
Tyler Caskey is a reverend in the small town of West Annett during the 50s. Facing the loss of his wife, Lauren, he is struggling to not only raise his daughter Katherine, but also to keep his foothold in a community he feels more and more alienated from. Overwhelmed by his duty, tired he’s trying to pick up the remaining pieces of his life to start anew.
Abide with me could be a true story. It’s one of those works of fiction that would make you question your actions if not your entire life. Its brutal reality grounds you deeply in the small community of West Annett, away from everything in the cold lands of New England. But because, it is so small, it crystallises behaviours we stopped paying attention to in bigger, more dehumanised cities and consequences, also more visible, leave tainted trails in the snow.
Reverend Tyler Caskey is grieving. Throughout the whole book. We follow him during the painful process of saying goodbye to his wife, to idealised memories and finally reach the realisation of what life has truly become while learning how to open one’s heart again. He is grieving without knowing it, without being conscious he needed to go through that process and accept his human condition despite his holy status within his community.
Small town politics
Small town politics are venomous. The game of appearances mixed with nefarious tricks and invisible traps, weigh in on every social interactions. And exactly because of this, it’s impossible to know who is genuine and who is not.
Church is the keystone of any small town. Even more so during the 50s. Life revolves around it and everyone is looking for a way to belong and to take advantage of the tiniest cut of power they can get. What I found truly disheartening was how each and every character’s personal interests took over the one of a child.
Katherine, Tyler’s daughter, has gone silent since the death of her mother that I guess no one took the time to really explain to her. She’s only 5 and was sent away without being able to say a last goodbye to the most important person if her short life. Obviously, since then she has been quite difficult to handle, being rebellious and shutting out literally every adult she encounters. Which was not to the taste of the town’s almighty bigots.
Because of his charisma and status, Tyler has become a fantasy for all the women in town looking for an escape from their dull lives. Profoundly in love with his wife and then, grieving over her loss, he could never respond positively to any of them, dismissing their efforts without a second thought. So they slowly grew tired and angry not to be perceived worthy of interest and finally took it out on a 5 year-old.
Marital life and the escape plan
Being married is not just about a beautiful dress and an everlasting happy life. We all know that. At times it can feel like a big red cushion smothering you in your sleep. Well, at least it’s what it feels like for Charlie.
Charlie is the only other main male character in the book. A kind of counterpart to Tyler. He was in the military, has been to war and has come back suffering from PTSD to a life he no longer really belongs to.
Charlie has a mistress in Boston that he visits regularly and with whom he can let out the most twisted parts of himself. He’s obsessed with her – woman that we never learn the name of. She is just the woman in Boston for whom Charlie is that close to give up his life for. It’s how much he feels smothered by his life, by his wife, by his own kids who he despises and sometimes wish to see dead.
Charlie also hates Tyler. Most certainly because of what he represents and the attention he gets. But by the end the book, Charlie will be the one to help out Tyler when he needed it the most. It’s in that time of doubt that he will realise how wrong he was about his family and how happiness might have been standing right in front of his eyes.
Break publicly or die
In this particular scene at the end of the book, Tyler has a very public melt-down. About to read maybe the most important sermon of his life, the one that should set everyone straight in his congregation, he suddenly cannot utter a single word anymore. Instead, while standing in front of his parishioners, tears start pourring down uncontrollably.
Then, and only then, those who grew so angry at him realised he was only human and deserving of compassion.
In all honesty, I felt dizzy and ill-at-ease reading this book. The will not to understand one another and to literally get back at a broken man through a defenseless child is beyond me. Well, it is the interpretation I made of it.
Obviously I left out numerous bits and pieces from the book. It would be too long to talk about each and every characters and storylines. I voluntarily left his mother out, for she is the most disgusting character of them all with no genuine care for her son.
It’s hard to explain how angry this book made me. I know it’s merely fiction, but troubling how true it can be. That’s how you know a book was good. When you’re left with deep, real emotions, whether it’s happiness and love or anger and spite.
Clearly, one the most interesting books of 2016 for me!