The Burgess boys are brothers, Jim and Bob, raised in small town rural Maine. Jim is the older by five years, the golden boy, high school football quarterback, successful attorney, the shining example of what this small town has produced. Jim has a loving wife in Helen. Bob is affable and kind, but haunted enough by an unspoken-of accident that killed their father when he was four years old that he smokes too much and drinks too much. Bob’s marriage to Pam has ended and he is alone. Both have escaped Maine and live in New York. Bob is also an attorney, but a public defender. Jim belittles Bob every time they are in contact. But Bob never reacts angrily or strikes back, either with words or with fists.
Yet there is another sibling. She is Susan, Bob’s twin sister, who has remained in their town of Shirley Falls. And it is in the crisis in Susan’s life that the story unfolds. Susan has a troubled son, Zach, and he is in big trouble with the law. She calls her brothers for help.
There are others in Shirley Falls too. They are the Somali immigrants, welcomed by some, disdained by others, misunderstood by all. They dress differently, keep to themselves, worship in their make-shift mosque, speak only the most broken English. Their customs and ways do not fit the “melting pot” image of how immigrants are supposed to blend into the American culture. These Somalis have been deeply offended by Zach’s crime – he has thrown a pig’s head into their mosque.
One of the most interesting things about this novel is that the reader doesn’t really bond with any of the characters. Are any likeable? Well, not really, at least not through most of the book. Bob is the most likeable of the lot, but he is such a wuss that he cheerfully accepts the verbal abuse of Jim and, as it turns out, of Susan. Jim is arrogant and mean. Susan is pitiful. Yet they and their story are compelling. I really cared about this family. How Strout has managed to do that is remarkable. This is a thoughtful portrayal of a family and how that family copes, or doesn’t cope, with tragedy and heartache. Strout has a keen eye for family dynamics, for the ways in which families create both walls and bridges. Her dialogue is rich.
As Jim’s life crumbles, as Bob’s life heals, as Susan’s and Zach’s lives move through this crisis, Strout unveils the bonds that are family despite everything.
“What am I going to do, Bob? I have no family.”
“You have family,” Bob said. “You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be kind of a drip but apparently is not too much of a drip now. That’s called family.”
And, ultimately, it is the Somali elder who saves Zach. Abdikarim, a man who has known both evil and fear, has seen not evil in Zach’s eyes, but fear. Unbeknownst to almost everyone, it is he who convinces the authorities to drop the charges against Zach.
This novel is rich with nuance, both about families and how they function, but also about immigrants to the United States and the costs to them and their families as they blend and don’t blend into American culture. It is also rich with what and whom we don’t know. Bob and Jim have holes in what they know about each other and about their own past. The Maine natives don’t know the Somalis. Susan doesn’t know her son. The knowledge gaps are artfully revealed and ultimately that’s what links all the characters. As the prologue says, “Nobody ever knows anyone.”
Reviewed by Jeanie Smith