Two novels on this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize shortlist explore the difficulties of communicating and the different forms that communication takes in the 21st century.
Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible show characters struggling to find words to describe their feelings and experiences. Rooney’s narrator Frances is 21 and keen to articulate her complicated emotions. Strout’s novel, meanwhile, shows that making sense of life through language doesn’t necessarily get easier with age. One octogenarian character goes as far as to say: “We don’t know what anything means in this whole world.”
Conversations with Friends has been praised by critics for its maturity and, at 27, Rooney is the youngest ever Rathbones Folio Prize nominee. But it is very much a novel about the uncertainty involved in being young and in love. The narrator, Frances, and her best friend Bobbi are students in Dublin when they meet Melissa, a thirtysomething writer, and her actor husband, Nick. The attractive older couple appear to have achieved the kind of confidence and contentment that are a long way off for Frances and Bobby. But that turns out to be an illusion and, fairly soon, Frances and Nick embark on an affair.
Frances and Nick’s relationship fits the classic mould of the young woman and older man romance, moving from its first exhilarating throes to disenchantment. Frances and Bobbi’s friendship, on the other hand, is distinctly contemporary. In recent years, prominent novelists, including Zadie Smith and Elena Ferrante, have written about female friendship, but Rooney’s take on the subject is fresh, in part because her characters are, like her, digital natives which means they take for granted new forms of communication. They chat at length online and Frances has a disarming habit of using search terms to retrieve old conversations. For Frances and Bobbi, internet messaging is a tool for communicating and an archive of their friendship.
Months after their affair ends, Nick calls Frances out of the blue, claiming he meant to dial Melissa. When Frances says she’s missed him, Nick admits: “I can’t believe you’re on the phone saying you waited for me to call you… You really don’t know how devastating it is to hear that.” It’s a beautifully-executed denouement in dialogue. The image of the lovers letting months slide by in silence, each cocooned in their inability to say how they truly feel, encapsulates Rooney’s concern with the difficulties of communicating.
Strout’s Anything is Possible is a novel in connected stories and a sequel of sorts to her best-selling My Name is Lucy Barton (2016). In that novel, the writer protagonist Lucy Barton reflected on her impoverished childhood and talked with her mother about people from their small town in Illinois. In Anything is Possible, those people, who were previously the subject of mere anecdotes, get whole chapters and the reader hears their perspectives on events.
Overlapping stories, occurring in the same location, are a recurrent literary device in classic American literature, in books like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts (1994), and Strout’s novel is a powerful addition to the tradition. Her characters are haunted by their pasts which often involve poverty, war and family turmoil. They contain reservoirs of emotion but, like Rooney’s characters, silence surrounds some of their deepest feelings. As one man says: “I guess there are some things in life we don’t tell others.”
There are moments of clarity, however, when Strout’s characters find the words. “People could surprise you,” says one narrator. “Not just their kindness, but also their sudden ability to express things the right way.” In other instances, verbal communication is beyond the protagonists but other characters manage to intuit what they mean: “He opened his mouth as though about to say something, but then he shook his head and closed his mouth once more. Patty felt – without knowing what it was – that she understood what he was going to say.”
You don’t need to have read My Name is Lucy Barton to enjoy Strout’s new work, although it will deepen your appreciation. Strout is a generous writer and Anything is Possible an affirming book. It’s under 300 pages long but the acres of life between its covers are as vast as the cornfields that surround the small town where it’s set. Whether it’s Lucy Barton’s traumatic return to her childhood home, or the story of a father who brims with pride and admiration for his grown-up son but cannot bring himself to tell him, or the woman who leaves her children because she simply has to get away from their father, there are stories here for everyone.
At a moment in history when we have more ways of keeping in touch than ever before, people can still feel isolated and loneliness continues to be an important subject for writers. In their very different books, Rooney and Strout have produced profound and moving meditations on the importance, and the difficulties, of communication. They articulate what their characters cannot put into words.