Book review: Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

(cover image courtesy Pan Macmillan Australia)

Happiness has been in short supply over the last couple of years as the COVID pandemic has run rife through once iron-clad certainties and disrupted lives in ways that were unpredictable and often unceasing.

While Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, wasn’t written with the status quo-busting messiness of the pandemic in mind – the author penned the short but powerful novel in 2014 shortly before his death, with the book published posthumously in 2015 – it does go deep into the heart of one of the central themes of recent times, belonging and connection, both of which have proven difficult to keep alive when social gatherings, travel and physical intimacy have been in soul-sapping short supply.

In this exquisitely rendered, poignant story of two older people, Addie Moore and Louis Waters, we find two people who are lonely in their isolation, estranged in a sense from those who belong to them and to whom they belong, and looking for some sort of meaningful connection.

But in the often closeminded small town of Holt, Colorado, the setting for all of Haruf’s books, openness to the new and the transformative is not exactly common, and when Addie suggests to Louis that they spend their nights together in chaste and platonic companionship, many people think it scandalous or risky, an abrogation of propriety and good, decent social behvaiour.

“And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters. It was an evening in May just before full dark.

They lived a block apart on Cedar Street in the oldest part of town with elm trees and hackberry and a single maple grown up along the curb back from the sidewalk of the two-story houses. It had been warm in the day but it had turned off cool now in the evening. She went along the sidewalk under the trees and turned in at Louis’s house.” (P. 3)

Thankfully Addie, and later Louis emboldened by her example, don’t care, preferring to stave off the nighttime suffocation of loneliness than meet restrictive societal expectations which seems to preference observance of arcane standards over actual, meaningful connection.

The decision by Addie to flout the opinions of neighbours and friends and pursue an unorthodox friendship and then more with Louis, though the road there is slow and sensitively travelled in ways that will make you hear ache with love for both Addie and Louis and the close bonds they forge, is wondrously nuanced but powerfully moving resulting in the kind of quiet, deep-seated happiness that neither expected to feel again, if ever.

As nights spent talking before sleep move on, each comes to realise that what they thought they knew about their neighbour was incomplete and put together through gossip, half-realised conversations and tangential connection, and that maybe they are what each other needs as they move into the twilight of their lives.

Told with infinite care and understanding of the human condition but movingly alive with the happiness and joy of real, life-changing connection, the kind that remarks lives in ways no one expects, Our Souls at Night is a weighty delight, the kind of book that reminds you to never give up on life or its rich possibilities.

What makes Our Souls at Night so powerful is that it doesn’t make out that these possibilities are thick on the ground and ready for the taking, and that when they come to fruition, they should be treasured and held close, even if life makes it hard for them to go the distance.

Kent Haruf (image courtesy Penguin Random House)

A love story writ small, though large in its emotional scope and effect, Our Souls at Night is one of those transcendentally moving novels that accomplishes a huge amount in 179 masterfully-rendered pages.

It’s almost TARDIS-like in its storytelling ambitions, its slight size belying how great and enriching a story lies within, one which takes places in quiet moments for the most parts – picnics by the river or walks with grandchildren and their dog through the countryside, in the quiet of the night and the once-emotionally disturbing cloak of darkness – but whose effect is so large and expansive that it changes the landscape of both Louis and Addie’s lives, lives that both though set in concrete until the lonely end.

The brave willingness of Addie, firstly and then Louis to defy convention and to upend expectation in pursuit of a connection to give meaning to the widowed ends of their lives is inspirational, not because it is spruiked as a panacea for an unloved empty existence like some life coach on a fevered audience-stirring high, but because Haruf allows it to take in small, quiet, very human moments, the kind that feel possible and in reach for all of us.

There is nothing about Our Souls at Night that feels like it couldn’t happen out in the real world, which makes it tale of lives enriched by friendship and more all the more rewarding to read because the story it details, in all its intimate glory and hopefulness and love, could actually happen.

“I don’t think he’s gotten free of it to this day. It’s partly what affects his connection with Jamie. He seems to be repeating what happened between him and his own father.

You can’t fix things, can you, Louis said.

We always want to. But we can’t.” (P. 144)

It dares to proclaim that loneliness and the wee small hours of the night, and then day, do not have to be our default lot, and that we can find happiness, real, overflowing, genuine happiness when it seems most out of reach.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t any cost to it.

Both Addie and Louis find themselves confronting not simply societal sanctions but familial ones as their own children confront them over what they regard as improper or ill-thought connection, the kind they see as a threat or a negative but which the two once-lonely souls know as an overwhelmingly happy positive.

In a world which often cares more about looking good or doing the right thing (which is usually the wrong thing for the human spirit which thrives on risk and daring and emotional bravery), Our Souls at Night dares us to consider what might happen were we simply to pursue happiness.

Not the kind that comes at the expense of others – both Addie and Louis remain beautifully selfless in their own ways, especially when it comes to Addie’s grandson Jamie – but which is determined to find expression in the places that are usually empty and alone, especially as life winds down and there is less and less to fill them.

Our Souls at Night is a balm for the soul, a timely reminder in an era of dislocation and relational loss, that it is possible to connect and to love, to find friendship and much much more and to kick loneliness and lack of meaningful intimacy to the curb in favour of the kind of connection and belonging that mends lives, fills in the existential voids and which transforms lives in ways that are rich, alive and gloriously, wonderfully possible and which redefine the landscape of our lives for the transformatively better.

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