Reviewed by Ron Charles
Sunday, March 19, 2006
ABIDE WITH ME
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House. 294 pp. $24.95
Every novel is about a crisis of faith -- in one's self, one's partner, one's prospects -- but novels about religious leaders often portray crisis in explicitly spiritual terms, and that can be hell. Too often, churchy language forces the rich ambiguity of good fiction to get "left behind." Lately, though, a few novels full of Christian faith have managed to transcend sectarian piety and speak to a large, diverse audience. Each year welcomes another splendid novel into the fold: Gail Godwin's Evensong , Rachel Basch's The Passion of Reverend Nash , Marilynne Robinson's Gilead . And now, from Elizabeth Strout, comes Abide With Me , a deeply moving story about a Congregational minister stunned by the death of his wife.
As she did in her bestselling debut, Amy and Isabelle , Strout sets her second novel in a small New England town, whose natural beauty she returns to again and again as this tale unfolds against the background of the Cold War tensions of the 1950s. She concentrates on the gentle comedy and muffled tragedy among people who live and work and pray so close together that every sigh blows against someone else's face. Her hero is Rev. Tyler Caskey, a friendly, thoughtful widower just barely carrying on with the duties of fatherhood and church. Though he tries to hide it, his parishioners' problems look petty through the fog of his grief. Meanwhile, his beloved elder daughter, 5-year-old Katherine, is starting to feel like a cross to bear. In the months following her mother's death, she has stopped speaking, she cries and screams at school, and she wets her bed at night. Her teachers, portrayed in all their perky condescension, begin drawing up plans for psychological treatment; neighbors swap shocking stories of her behavior, their concern stained with self-righteousness.
Largely oblivious to all these maneuvers and blinded to the severity of his daughter's condition by the depth of his sorrow, Tyler remains committed to earnest prayer. He befriends the simple, depressed woman who cleans his house without considering how this friendship might look to his nosy parishioners. Instead of attending to these brewing tensions, he turns for inspiration to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazis. But Bonhoeffer's extraordinary example only exacerbates Tyler's sense of inadequacy. "If Bonhoeffer could spend a year in a prison cell," Strout writes, "only to find himself taken naked out into the woods to be hanged, then he, Tyler Caskey, could pay his debts, care for his children, and do his job." It's an entirely reasonable conclusion, except that it demands subjecting himself to the kind of standard he cannot endure. Raised on a strict doctrine of self-sacrifice and consideration for others, Tyler suffers through this dark period entirely unable to ask for assistance or tend to his own needs.
What's most distressing to him is that his sense of God's presence, "the profound and irreducible knowledge that God was right there," now seems beyond his perception. "He hoped these days," Strout writes, "to have a moment of exalted understanding come to him as the 'chance' result of his disciplined prayer, [but] no, Tyler was earthly bound." Strout portrays this spiritual agony with tenderness and a deep respect for the faith that Tyler believes will someday bring him solace. What an extraordinarily delicate position this is for an author of modern literary fiction. One careless move and the whole novel crystallizes into something shiny and doctrinaire -- or, just as bad, dissolves into the pool of sophisticated cynicism about traditional Christian faith.
The story frequently shifts away from Tyler's travails to catch snippets of the conversations swirling around town, in various degrees of concern and outrage, about the minister's withdrawn behavior. I can't recall a more incisive portrayal of the casual cruelty of gossip, but Strout has no interest in making villains. Tyler's critics have their own problems: marriages grown cold and sullen, illnesses that offer no relief but death, crippling anxieties about the future. The organist and her husband, a deacon, have come to blows, each of them deeply resentful of the other's unhappiness. Even the flashback of Tyler's marriage, cut short by a fast-moving cancer, shows a relationship wholly at odds with his idealized memory of it.
Dark as much of this beautiful novel is, there's finally healing here, and, as Tyler should have known, it comes not from strength and self-sufficiency but from accepting the inexplicable love of others. In one beautiful page after another, Strout captures the mysterious combination of hope and sorrow. She sees all these wounded people with heartbreaking clarity, but she has managed to write a story that cradles them in understanding and that, somehow, seems like a foretaste of salvation. ·
Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World.