I loved Benjamin Myer’s The Gallows Pole almost as much as Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. Yet superficially, at least, these two novels have almost nothing in common. The Gallow’s Pole is set in the late eighteenth century Yorkshire, its protagonists are the Cragg Valley Coiners, counterfeiters, they live in smokey stone houses, they stink, they swear. Olive Kitteridge is more or less a story of a late middle aged woman in a small town on the east coast of the USA, she’s blunt, sometimes brutal. Each chapter of Olive Kitteridge is almost stand alone, characters breeze in and out, but Olive is like a shadow passing through, she is grumpy, ungracious, flawed and fully human. She’s not particularly happy, just about OK. (Did Strout deliberately choose those initials? Of course she did!) Meanwhile David Hartley, self-styled king of the coiners, is a Robin Hood, a gangster, he is superstitious and dangerous, dispenses his own violent justice to those who cross him. Olive and David are difficult, unpleasant people. They are flawed, unpredictable, yet both have a quality that somehow makes you root for them. This quality, whatever it is, I cannot isolate nor define. Perhaps it is their honesty, their reluctance to comply with polite society, their intolerance of etiquette, their resistance to being nice. I wouldn’t invite either into my house, yet there I was, smuggling them in every day, eager to know what they were up to. Because David and Olive are in a war with life, their struggle is ours, David’s against injustice, poverty, the might of the state. Olive battles stupidity and sentimentality. And both are all too aware of the cold indifference of the universe. This is, perhaps, a clue, a key to their psyches. They have grown a tough skin but somewhere beneath is a soft heart. They are hard to like, but easy to love. Occasionally Strout peels Olive open and we hear something like this: ‘Sometimes, like now, Olive had a sense of how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. For most, it was a sense of safety in the sea of terror that life increasingly became.’ Olive and David are like tiny children, who wake at night in impenetrable darkness, but who, instead of hiding under the duvet, yell out at the bogeymen, the invisible demons. They take on the universe, its meaninglessness, and somehow, in doing so, show us courage, and even when all seems lost, how to keep going.