Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

I always enjoy those authors who can make the ordinary extraordinary. Among them is Elizabeth Strout, who writes about the drama of life in Shirley Falls, Maine. The Burgess Boys is a novel about two brothers who have made their lives in New York but who are called home to Shirley Falls to help with a family crisis.

Jim Burgess is a highly successful defence attorney with a beautiful home, a loving if snooty wife and kids at college. He’s also arrogant and takes people for granted, including his younger brother, Bob. Working in legal aid, the far more likable Bob has a failed marriage behind him; he's overweight and drinks too much, and puts up with Jim’s constant derogatory remarks.

When their sister Susan calls in desperation, her socially awkward teenage son has done an unimaginably gross thing – thrown a pig’s head into a mosque during Ramadan. Local authorities are demanding justice as is the growing community of Somali refugees. Can the Burgess brothers help with damage control?

While there are some broader issues illustrated here – the plight of Somali shopkeeper, Ahmed, is poignantly realised – essentially this is a story about family and how events, secrets and lies from the past have habit of bubbling up when you least expect them to, and how they need to be addressed before people can move on.

I know that sounds a bit heavy, but Strout writes like a dream, her characters wryly imagined, the dialogue witty and heartfelt while the plot has just enough tension to make the story interesting. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments too, and the ending is satisfying without being saccharine. I for one will be reading Strout’s backlist.

Posted by JAM

Catalogue Link: The Burgess Boys

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