Groundskeeping by Lee Cole

Publisher: Knopf Publication Date: March 2022

I was initially drawn to the front cover of this novel which is probably not something you should admit to when writing a review. The implication of the title ‘Groundskeeping’ suggested ideas of potential unrest and disaster whilst trying to maintain order, authority and calm. In lots of ways this is exactly what it was about. ‘Groundskeeping’ has as its central protagonist and narrative voice Owen Callahan, a young American man, who aspires to be a writer. Down on his luck he moves back to his hometown in Kentucky to live with his uncle and grandfather. As a way of supporting himself, Owen takes on a job as a groundskeeper at a local college which in exchange for his role, he is able to attend creative writing classes.

Owen’s relationship with home and place is an interesting one explored by the writer. Owen feels he has somehow failed or at the very least harbours feelings of ambivalence about returning home. Opportunity and success are elsewhere, ‘In Kentucky, all I want is to leave. When I’m away, I’m homesick for a place that never was.’ It feels somehow a universal trait to feel that part of growing up is to feel we outgrow our roots and that pull to experience the world is one we should do in order to figuratively grow and develop.

This relationship is further complicated by the difficult relationships he has with his immediate family. Whilst living with his grandfather, himself a character that has remained static since the death of his wife, Owen has increasingly fraught run ins with his Trump supporting uncle. He also has to navigate complex emotions with both his mother and father who are both living with different partners and facing issues of ill health and unemployment. The novel frames their encounters with the pressing issues the country is facing in the present day. Politically, his family hold very different views which causes frustration and anger on both sides. We are being asked to consider how can we nurture meaningful connections when those we love hold such divisive viewpoints.

Owen’s relationship with Alma Hazdic, a writer in residence at the college Owen works at is another central aspect of the novel. Alma, a Bosnian immigrant, has led a life of privilege in relation to Owen and yet seems to be pulled by the same forces as himself. Owen believes they have, ‘some sense of shared understanding, real or imagined- that we were of a kind. Maybe it didn’t matter.’ This interesting dynamic is played out across the text and it seems the writer is asking the reader to consider the desires of each character and how parallel they are. Are they really after the same thing? Owen seems to hint at the truth, ‘I figured these sorts of things suffered from close scrutiny anyhow.’ We are all perhaps guilty of portraying an outward image based around perceived notions of success, focussing on how we want others to see us without wanting to face harsher realities.

There are moments of real sadness and poignancy within the text. Myself as a reader felt particularly drawn to Owen’s grandfather, a veteran of WWII and a character who acts as a keeper of the peace and filled with wisdom. During a typical evening scene watching his beloved Westerns he says to Owen it is the everyday, dull moments we take for granted that we miss the most when they are gone. I felt his character arc was particularly vivid and perfectly illustrated the complexity and nuances behind individual beliefs that we might be easily dismissive of if they are contrary to our own without scrutinising the reasons behind them.

A lingering image or images from the book were the trees. Trees being pruned, trimmed, cut down. Glimpses of plants and tree branches when characters go about their daily lives. You see them and hear them, ‘a breeze kicked up, and you could hear the wind ruffling the leaves- a sound like ocean surf.’ They are a continual motif throughout which I chose to see as a positive. Perhaps the idea that life continues and grows despite the minutiae of our daily worries and stresses. Nature as being a constant restorative or leveler in times of tension or stress. A beautiful book about relationships, identity and how we each define home.

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