The past — real and invented, individual and personal — haunts Elizabeth Strout’s new novel. “The Burgess Boys” (Random House, 320 pages, $26) centers on Jim and Bob Burgess, brothers who live very different lives, but they are just part of a large ensemble cast. Strout, who collected a Pulitzer Prize for her short story collection “Olive Kitteridge,” has infused her characters with a longing for the past, a longing to escape from the past, or, in some cases, both.
The plot is propelled by an act committed by Jim and Bob’s nephew. Zach rolls a severed pig’s head into a mosque in Shirley Falls, Maine, starting a firestorm of controversy in a small town that has become home to a large Somali population. Bob, a kindhearted but ineffectual man, and Jim, a successful and famous lawyer, return to their hometown to try to help sort things out.
Underlying the action is the accident that killed Bob and Jim’s father when they were children. Their reactions to that event seem to have set them on the paths their lives would subsequently follow. But one of them possesses a secret that has the potential to undermine their understanding of themselves. Strout handles this portion of the plot with great skill and empathy for her characters.
Strout navigates her way through a number of points of view, employing a narrator who knows more about the characters than they know about each other or themselves. The prose is fluid, and the dialogue is sharp and believable. Strout can elucidate character with a quick exchange and a comment from her narrator:
“Bob turned away from the window. ‘Susan, do you have a pill you can take?’
‘Like a cyanide tablet?’
‘Valium.’ Bob felt an expressible sadness go through him. …
‘I never take Valium.’
‘Well, it’s time to start. …’
… He wouldn’t sleep tonight; not even a Valium, and he had plenty, would get him to sleep, he could tell.”
“The Burgess Boys” is a story of regrets, to be sure, but one is unlikely to regret reading this fine novel.