I have owned a copy of this book for a really long time but never got around to reading it. A few weeks ago, my friend convinced me to join her virtual book club. I had initially declined because I didn’t want to add anything else to my schedule. I already struggle to read and watch enough to write all of my posts, so adding the additional pressure of a book club to the mix seemed silly. But they pick a short read at the start of the month and discuss it at the end. I figured that even I could handle that. So a few weeks ago the choices for books came out. This one was on it and I selfishly picked. Well, it meant I wouldn’t have to buy a new book. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one. The fact that it was a short read meant that I put it off for ages but I still got it done in time. And it feels great to have finished a book I’ve had on my shelf for so many years. Has it inspired me to read the rest? Not quite. Maybe if all of them were that small I would.
Kent Haruf was a very unassuming author. He avoided the limelight where possible and instead focused on writing. Something that turned him into a beloved author known for writing books set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado. Our Souls at Night was his final novel and was written as he was dying. The manuscript was finished just before his death and was published posthumously. The novella gave readers one final chance to visit the town of Holt and experience the people who live there. Something we can see from its opening line: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” This is a book that plunges you deep into this community and assumes you’re familiar with their comings and goings. Whether you have read Haruf’s previous books or not, you are instantly part of Holt. It breeds familiarity and shows you that life has been moving on in Holt without you.
This is just one part of a greater story that was started long before you arrived and it will continue long after you left. After all, the two lead main characters of the story have lived long lives by the time we come face-to-face with them. Addie Moore and Louis Waters are both widowers with grown-up children. They know of each other but have never spent any real-time together. Until Addie knocks on his door one evening. She suggests that the pair come to an agreement to find some comfort. Addie puts forward the proposition that Louis comes over and sleeps with her every night. Nothing racy though, as she’s quick to reassure him. This is about overcoming their loneliness. About holding hands with someone in the dark and having somebody to talk to as you drift off.
It all looks set to become quite a comfortable little routine until Addie’s grandson, Jamie, has to join them. He is dropped off by his father after his mother walked out on them. Addie and Louis set out to help the boy adjust to this change and have as much fun as possible. Something that gets a little harder thanks to the rest of the town gossiping about their nightly activities. It becomes quite the scandal and their respective children have a difficult time understanding it. But Addie, Louis, and Jamie become a strong trio and simply try to live their lives as best as they can. Ultimately, Kent Haruf isn’t writing about anything sensational or extraordinary, he’s writing about everyday life.
This isn’t a grand romance but two people who find each other. The language Haruf uses is beautiful, there can be no doubt, but there is nothing overly poetic about it. The narrative is very much to the point. These days we are used to writers who put a great flourish into everything and make it seem extraordinary. Haruf has no interest in elevating anything here. He writes about the everyday. The lives of these people are so mundane and ordinary that it could easily have petered out into nothing but it’s a testament to him that it keeps you with it. This is not a traditional love story in any sense nor is it particularly transgressive. Although, the idea of two people in their later years rejecting the idea that their lives are spent could be seen as fairly radical in some circles.
No, this is a story about two inconsequential people in an unimportant little town. Yet he makes them significant wth his simplistic style. The language he uses is unadorned and it can read as very flat. The narrative is mainly made up of dialogue with a few basic descriptions here and there. This is pure writing in which every word counts and there is never anything more than the very basic narrative. This makes the novel stand-out in a sea of epic romances that we see flooding the pages in so many books. Our Souls at Night isn’t trying to introduce us to the greatest love of all time but to show us simple human happiness. A happiness that is tainted by all the negatives that come with being human. Happiness can never exist without its opposite. That is why we delve into the context of the two main characters. We hear about their tragic pasts and their biggest regrets. Happiness relies on pain and misery. You can only find one if you truly understand the other. Haruf sees that.
Indeed, he was experiencing it when he was writing. Although, it is easy to read anything into the novel when you know the author was preparing for death. It is easy to get the sense that, towards the end of his life, Haruf is presenting everything he understands about happiness as someone who is reaching the end. He is living within the darkness that is associated with mortality and letting us see the truth about happiness. It is nothing special or exceptional. Haruf no longer has the time to strive for an imagined happiness somewhere else but to celebrate happiness wherever it can be found. A happiness that comes from doing what you want and enjoying the little things in life. Just as he doesn’t have the time to waste on lyrical language. The writer simply wants to say what needs to be said.
Our Souls at Night is a surprising but captivating story. Near the end of the book, Louis says “I just want to live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day”, which is a great way to sum up this book. With one simple act, happiness is found cautiously and tenderly between two people society had mostly given up on. The book understands that happiness is in no way guaranteed in life nor is it constant. But, there is hope that we can all find something in our lives to bring us contentment. Happiness exists and this simple story lets us share in it for one brief moment. It’s beautiful.