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Our Souls At Night

A tender, contemplative novel about a late life relationship

This is the first book I have read by Kent Haruf, and it won’t be the last. It’s one of those tender, contemplative books in which nothing much happens but through which you feel your life has been immeasurably enhanced.

The plot, if it can be called that, follows a man and a woman in their seventies in small town America. Addie, a widow, makes an astonishingly courageous proposal to her neighbour Louis whom she hardly knows. She asks him to spend the nights with her – not for sex, but for the comfort and human warmth that they both need to assuage the loneliness that comes with age. Thus begins a relationship that shocks the small-minded townsfolk and unsettles their children.

Haruf’s style is calm and measured, with pared-back prose, few adjectives and homespun dialogue. Every word feels carefully chosen.

I love it, she said. It’s better than I had hoped for. It’s a kind of mystery. I like the friendship of it. I like the time together. Being here in the dark of night. The talking. Hearing you breathe next to me if I wake up.

In the way of all new relationships, they are excited to learn about the other, but they take it slowly, telling their separate histories gradually through unhurried conversations in the dark. As their friendship progresses from awkwardness to deep intimacy they reveal past tragedy, regret, betrayals and unhappiness with restrained and ordinary dignity. Against these backstories the present-day events unfold. Addie’s grandson comes to stay to give his divorcing parents a break. They do some gardening and buy a dog, play softball, go camping, eat marshmallows, visit friends.

The book is concerned with the small things that make up a good life: companionship, taking pleasure in nature; soothing an unhappy child; taking care of others; the fundaments of human decency. This of course is contrasted with the mean-spirited and petty reactions of other characters in the novel, and the pain that we sense is the counterpart to joy and is awaiting us at the end.

Outside the dark bedroom suddenly the wind came up and blew hard in the open window whipping the curtains back and forth. Then it started to rain.

I better close the window.

Not completely. Doesn’t it smell lovely. The loveliest now.

More a novella than a novel, this is a book that you could read in one sitting, on a 2-hour train journey say, but I would recommend savouring it slowly, allowing its gentleness to sink in. The quietness of this book reminded me of Stoner, and its understated prose of Ernest Hemingway. It feels like a classic.

Our Souls At Night is published by Picador, 192 pages.

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