Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout: a profoundly moving experience

Book review: Pulitzer-winning author of Olive Kitteridge continues to tell the truth about life as it is lived

Elizabeth Strout: It had occurred to Strout that what’s funny is true, so she set out to discover what was funny about herself in the hope of mining her own truth. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

Elizabeth Strout: It had occurred to Strout that what’s funny is true, so she set out to discover what was funny about herself in the hope of mining her own truth. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

Exclamation marks are generally avoided by novelists. The convention, famously set out by Elmore Leonard, is to use no more than two or three of them per 100,000 words, a convention Elizabeth Strout does not heed in Oh William! With a Pulitzer Prize in her back pocket for her novel, Olive Kitteridge, Strout can do whatever she wants, and does. The exclamation mark in the title of Oh William! is only the first of several dozen that appear in the body of the novel, and not necessarily where you might expect to find them.

Oh William! Is the story of the marriage, long ago ended in divorce, between William and Lucy. The novel is short and sparingly written, but the experiences of several lifetimes are revealed in a series of sometimes shocking revelations. Lucy has brought to the marriage the trauma of a dismal childhood, but it turns out that William’s apparently happy upbringing was not what it seemed. The juggling act Strout performs with grammar animates the narrative in surprising ways – the many instances of drama land with the quiet thud of the full stop, while the exclamation mark appears whenever Lucy experiences a pang of emotion or empathy, which she often does.

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