“Patty had run upstairs and seen her mother astride Mr Delaney – Patty’s Spanish teacher! – … And what Patty never forgot was the look of her mother’s eyes, they were wild; her mother could not stop herself from wailing, this is what Patty saw, her mother’s breasts and her mother’s eyes looking at her – yet unable to stop what was coming from her mouth.”

Strout leans into the human – the inevitable and the fallible elements within every person. Can people help themselves, the book seems to ask. Yes and no, as seen in Strout’s masterful depiction of the moment a young girl and her mother lock eyes. It isn’t the affair alone that comes to light but that her mother is beside herself even while looking at her daughter in the doorway. Patty runs swiftly to her room where in a few minutes her mother follows her after sending the Spanish teacher away. In a few, economical sentences Strout has shown a mother who loves her child but is still capable of grievously hurting her.

Anything is Possible is a series of interconnected stories about the inhabitants of Amgash, Illinois – a rural, dusty town lined with corn and soy fields that we previously encountered in Strout’s best-selling 2016 book My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy Barton is a well-known success story in Amgash – the skinny, impoverished girl who got away. The Bartons had been the poorest and most ostracised family in Amgash. While the earlier book is Lucy’s account of her childhood in Amgash and the life she carves for herself in New York City, this new book seems to question the authenticity of her memories.

Were those stories (not) true?

Lucy has become a famous author whose books are stocked in the local bookstore. Strout’s twist is that Anything is Possible is set in a time where My Name is Lucy Barton has been published by Lucy as a memoir about Amgash. The characters mentioned fleetingly in the memoir have a chance to tell their own wholesome, intimate stories. The book begins with the school janitor, Tommy, who is a kind, observant man who knew much about the young lives of the people in the town because of his job at the school. Seeing Lucy’s abject poverty, he had once tried to leave a quarter for her to buy something to eat. He now visits the remaining Barton child, the son whose name is Pete, from time to time to check on him.

Tommy is also someone who suffered a drastic turn in fortune when his dairy farm burned down in the middle of the night. His children had shifted school to the one where the Bartons studied and he had taken a job as a janitor there. But as he himself notes:

“Well. They had all lived through it.”

Survival and suffering

Not every person who survives a disaster in this book comes out the other end as sagely. Is it that bad, some characters ask. It is that bad, other characters reply. In one of the best stories in the book, Lucy returns to Amgash after seventeen years to meet her brother and sister. In the exchange of memories that follows, Lucy almost has a breakdown because there is so much she has not allowed herself to remember. In a particularly terrifying moment, the siblings recall being made to eat any food they had wasted – even if they had thrown it into the trash or into the toilet. In Strout’s excellent storytelling, every memory is explosive in its ability to explain why the characters have been damaged into adulthood. Two of the Barton siblings say they never have any appetite, while one overeats.

In another story, a local family contends with the secret of their father’s homosexuality. The inheritance of confusion and shame through generations is perfectly summarised in a conversation the children hear because they have hidden a tape recorder under a couch:

“The tape recorder clicked and whirred. Then there was the clear voice of their grandmother saying to her daughter, ‘Sylvia, it gags me. I lie here and I want to vomit. But you’ve made your bed. So you lie in the bed you made, my dear.’ And there was the sound of their mother crying. There was some murmur of a question. Should she speak to a priest? Their grandmother said, ‘I’d be too embarrassed, if I were you.’”

I first encountered Elizabeth Strout’s characters in the BBC mini-series based on Strout’s novel, Olive Kitteridge. The understated and believable dialogue between the characters that revealed years of comfort and understanding stayed with me. Her ability to show humanely what it means to be human and ordinary (in that every one inevitably is) has led me to read as many of her books as I can find. If you enjoyed Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth or Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, you will love Elizabeth Strout’s newest cast of characters.

Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout, Penguin Books.