Family Ties: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout [2013]

Well, I’ve not done this in a while! Recently I have found myself wanting to blog about everything but my thoughts on an actual book. It’s not that what I am reading doesn’t warrant comment, I am just finding myself stuck on what to say.

This of course, excludes The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, the first book to make me feel uncomfortable since The Reader by Bernhard Schlink – one of the finest books I have ever read.

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 Haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children, Jim and Bob Burgess escaped from their Maine hometown of Shirley Falls for New York City as soon as they possibly could. Jim, a sleek, successful corporate lawyer, has belittled his bighearted brother their whole lives, and Bob, a Legal Aid attorney who idolizes Jim, has always taken it in stride. But their long-standing dynamic is upended when their sister, Susan—the Burgess sibling who stayed behind—urgently calls them home. Her lonely teenage son, Zach, has gotten himself into a world of trouble, and Susan desperately needs their help. And so the Burgess brothers return to the landscape of their childhood, where the long-buried tensions that have shaped and shadowed their relationship begin to surface in unexpected ways that will change them forever.Synopsis from GoodReads

The novel begins with a mother and daughter reminiscing about the Burgess Boys, their sister Susan, and her son Zach. A novel within a novel, the daughter comments that she will write their story, the story of the Burgess boys. The narrator I then assumed was the daughter from the prolog, a woman who had her own opinions on each of the Burgess’ she knew; I felt this influence when forming my position as a reader as I was never sure whom I could or couldn’t sympathise with. We are made aware of the narrator’s dislike for Susan in the prolog; Bob is wet, but sympathetic in his helplessness; Jim is an arrogant bully. I felt I trusted the narrator, but it did leave me wondering if there was something more about each individual that I was possibly missing.

There was concern, as I began reading, that The Burgess Boys would be a story of a white family committing a hate crime with no appearance of the victims. To my pleasure Strout did not go down that route, which considering the subject matter, would have been an insult to the Somali community that is attacked. Instead, we get an insight into the community and how they feel as outsiders, not only in Maine, but from where they have fled – this added a necessary layer of humility the novel needed. There needed to be a level of discomfort, where we both sympathise rightly with the victims and also with the perpetrator.

This where Strout excels, in her depiction of human relationships and motivations. Jim, the elder Burgess brother, appears to hate his younger brother Bob; he resents him and rather than deal with his resentment he chooses to aggressive chips away at Bob. While they clearly love each other, Jim finds Bob weak; a projection of Jim’s own inadequacies, Jim sees everything he hates in himself in Bob. It is as if Jim is baffled that Bob is loved so effortlessly even after what he did, it takes Jim a lot of work to be loved and he resents that. Bob, conversely, over compensates for a crime he may or may not have committed as a child; taking both Jim and Susan’s abuse as penance – every failure Bob has he treats as recompense.

What is most interesting about the hate-crime Zach, Jim and Bob’s nephew, commits is that it sets a ball into motion that was teetering on the edge, waiting to drop. Zach’s act, clearly a cry for help and not meant as an anti-Muslim assault, unleashes a towns worth of passive aggression that has been bubbling under the surface since the Somali began arriving in their town. Highlighting the way many communities wrongly perceive immigrants, asylum seekers or refugees – these people want to be in their homes, with their people, in their country; they have been driven out of their homes and denied basic human rights, they have seen things no human should see. Yet oftentimes, these people are just perceived as arriving and taking “white people’s” jobs, changing  “white people’s” status quo. The Burgess Boys pushes you to understand that nothing is as it seems, and you should not make assumptions about people or cultures.

I finished The Burgess Boys, damped eyed and wishing we could all just take the time to understand one another. If you enjoyed The Reader, you’ll love this, but I recommend you read it either way.

The Burgess Boys is published by Simon and Schuster – HB released 26th March 2013 – £12.99

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[…] The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout “This where Strout excels, in her depiction of human relationships and motivations. Jim, the elder Burgess brother, appears to hate his younger brother Bob; he resents him and rather than deal with his resentment he chooses to aggressive chips away at Bob. While they clearly love each other, Jim finds Bob weak; a projection of Jim’s own inadequacies, Jim sees everything he hates in himself in Bob. It is as if Jim is baffled that Bob is loved so effortlessly even after what he did, it takes Jim a lot of work to… Read more »