Our Souls at Night is the final novel by American author Kent Haruf, published after his death from cancer in 2014. It’s a gorgeous book, deceptively simple in style, and the work of someone with a clear insight into what matters in life and what does not.
Haruf’s writing is stripped bare, the resulting book concise and profoundly truthful. The story immediately cuts to the chase – as does 70-year-old widow Addie Moore, a regular, respectable lady in small-town Holt [a fictional Colorado town which was the setting for all of Haruf’s novels]. In the opening pages, she pays a visit to her widower neighbour Louis Waters, who she knows only vaguely. She explains that she finds the loneliness of her empty home too much to bear and proposes an arrangement – that he come to her house and sleep with her at night, strictly to keep one another company:
I’m talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably. Lying down in bed together and you staying the night. The nights are the worst. Don’t you think?
Yes. I think so.
I end up taking pills to go to sleep and reading too late and then I feel groggy the next day. No use at all to myself or anybody else.
I’ve had that myself.
But I think I could sleep again if there were someone else in bed with me. Someone nice. The closeness of that. Talking in the night, in the dark. She waited. What do you think?
I don’t know. When would you want to start?
As they get to know each other, holding hands in bed in the dark and sharing their tales, we learn about their lives – with all the losses, disappointments and betrayals that make up very ordinary lives.
Addie and Louis’s arrangement may be unusual but while reading it, you think, why shouldn’t they have a little happiness together? It seems as if both have found contentment for the first times in their lives, their friendship gradually developing into something deeper. Their relationship is beautifully uncomplicated, two people finding comfort in each other. Needless to say, it doesn’t remain that way, as before long they’re the talk of the town, with the scandalised townspeople – not to mention Addie’s son – shocked at the brazenness of their arrangement. This is a world where everyone has their place and you don’t dare go against the grain.
The sparseness of this deeply moving story really complements the unassuming nature of the characters. What at times is simply a listing of the mundane becomes an homage to life’s simple pleasures – a camping trip with Addie’s grandson a particular joy. It’s made all the more poignant knowing it was written by someone who had run out of time to enjoy those small everyday gifts. And at the heart of the book, Addie and Louis are two lovely, flawed and recognisable people who keep you rooting for them throughout.
I stumbled across the book by unusual means for me. Though not a fan of talk radio, I happened to listen to an episode of Pat Kenny’s Easons Book Club on his Newstalk radio show. The panel discussing the book loved it unanimously, a rare thing. You can listen to the podcast here.