Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
In Olive, Again, Elizabeth Strout returns to the familiar territory of Olive Kitteridge, the titular character of her 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and arguably the author’s most memorable creation. Set once again in the fictional coastal town of Crosby, Maine, this new novel-instories sees the retired teacher and widow traversing the challenges of old age – still stubborn, still cantankerous, still prone to fits of perhaps unwilling compassion, and in short, still completely, wonderfully Olive.
If you’ve ever read Strout’s fiction before you already know you are in safe hands here. Strout writes stories that will crack you open; her prose exquisite, her characterisation exceptional. Olive is exactly the kind of richly nuanced character you always hope to meet in books. Loss and ageing have rendered her more vulnerable and self-reflective in this second outing, and it’s a testament to Strout’s masterful control over her material that these alterations never ring false. The depiction of old age isn’t hidden or tempered by sentimentality, and while it can sometimes be bleakly funny, it is never a joke either. Rather, it is explored with the same honesty and generosity that marks so much of Strout’s work.
If you are a Strout completist, Olive, Again also offers the added pleasure of reacquainting yourself with a couple of characters from her other works –Jim Burgess of The Burgess Boys and Isabelle of Amy and Isabelle – and Shirley Falls, the nearby and similarly fictional town where those other novels are set, is visited by Olive. These meta-crossovers further attest to the sense that the universe of Strout’s fiction is a real place, even if it only exists in her readers’ collective imagination. It is a lonely world in many ways but the glimmers of hope at its edges can be breathtaking in their beauty