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The bounds of brotherly love The Burgess Boys'

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Maine native's latest explores the power and perils of family

Elizabeth Strout was born in Portland and raised in a variety of small towns across Maine and New Hampshire. After an academic and professional career that sent her far and wide, she still spends time living in Maine, splitting her time between here and New York City.

She is also a Pulitzer Prize winner, having taken the award for fiction in 2009 for her short-story collection 'Olive Kitteridge.'

Her latest novel is 'The Burgess Boys' (Random House, $26), a tale centered around two brothers who, despite their best efforts, can never quite move on from the unspoken secrets of their shared past.

Jim and Bob Burgess are lawyers working in New York City, having long ago left their childhood home of in the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine. Jim is a high-profile defense attorney who made his name by successfully defending a noted singer in a controversial (and heavily-covered) murder trial. Bob is also a lawyer, though not nearly as successful as his brother he works for Legal Aid. The dynamic between brothers is decidedly one-sided; Jim has always belittled his younger sibling, but Bob who idolizes his big brother has always simply taken things as they come.

However, the brothers find themselves swept back into the world of Shirley Falls when their sister Susan, the only one who stayed behind, calls them home. Her teenaged son Zach has committed a thoughtless criminal act and put himself in the crosshairs of the town's simmering culture war between the townspeople and the immigrant Somali community: he threw a pig's head into a mosque during Ramadan. In the ensuing uproar, Susan desperately needs her brothers' help.

When Jim and Bob return to sleepy Shirley Falls, however, the ghosts of the past are awakened. This journey back to the land of their roots opens up veins of painful memory including a long-unspoken tragedy of their childhood that has shaped and defined each of their lives. Submerged tensions bubble to the surface as the Burgess boys (and girl) discover that none of them truly understands the truths beneath that vast and silent sea of the subconscious.

The power and craftsmanship of Strout's work is undeniable, producing inspired, illuminating prose. This tale of the ties that bind irresistibly draws the reader along, allowing us to feel deeply for these two deeply flawed men at story's center. Jim and Bob are men who still bear the scars from the spiritual blunt force trauma of their youth, though each has chosen a different path to deal with (or mask) those inner marks.

Strout manages to bring all manner of people to life within the pages of 'The Burgess Boys.' We have the two titular brothers, yes but we also have the sadly broken duo of sister Susan and nephew Zach. Strout also opens windows for us at others and their effects on the brothers' respective orbits; we meet Helen, Jim's intent-on-perfection wife and Pam, Bob's genial ex-wife who has become almost another sister. With quick, yet intricate sketches of friends and neighbors, Strout gives us glimpses of the Burgess veneer from varied (and often unflattering) angles.

And of course, no discussion of this book would be complete without addressing Strout's depiction of Shirley Falls' Somali community. We are offered a look at the ramifications of Zach's act largely through the eyes of Abdikarim, a shop owner who is torn between a desire to return to his homeland and a fear of the dangerous war zone it has become, all the while mourning his deceased son. The Somali community comes alive through Abdikarim, thanks to Strout's impeccable handling of a constantly shifting perspective.

This unpretentious epic is packed with humor and hubris, elevating the ordinary and shining a light into the roiling emotions typically contained beneath the still, staid surface of small town life. Capturing the spirit of New England's oddly optimistic realism is almost impossible, yet Strout does so with what reads like effortless ease. Alternately bold and reserved, it is a worthy follow-up to the award-winning form of 'Olive Kitteridge.' 

'The Burgess Boys' is a deeply-felt work of truth and tenderness. Strout has brought these people to life, warts and all. It's a story of family's power to bind us together, regardless of the trials and tribulations that threaten to tear us apart. 'Blood is thicker than water' might be a clichd concept, but in 'The Burgess Boys,' its accuracy is inescapable.


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