Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.

Advertisements

What I Read – March 2017

I’ve fallen behind in reviewing books but am working to catch up and get some reviews posted next week. In the meantime, here’s what I read this month:

EileenOttessa Moshfegh (Penguin Press, 2015)

The Dark and Other Love Stories Deborah Willis (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)

She was glad that was done. What a relief. But then again, if she could, she’d do it all over. Everything. Her whole life. She’d live it again, just for the small but real pleasures of a donut and coffee, of holding her daughter in her arms, of making money, of sleeping late, of waking up.

  • Deborah Willis, “The Nap”

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen – Joanna Faber & Julie King (Scribner, 2017)

The Break – Katherena Vermette (Anansi, 2016)

The Garden of Eden – Ernest Hemingway (Scribners, 1986)

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

…and he realizes that this is the way it is, the way it must be: you don’t visit the lost, you visit the people who search for the lost.

  • Hanya Yanagihara

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Knopf Canada, 2017)

The Dinner Party and Other Stories – Joshua Ferris (Little, Brown, 2017)

Didn’t Finish:

The Travelers – Chris Pavone

What I Read – March 2016

There was a time when Spring Break and holiday and travel meant I had time to read more than usual. Not this year, my friends, not this year. Here’s what I did read:

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Canada, 2015)

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003) (translated by John Rutherford)

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour – Anne Michaels, illustrated by Emma Block (Tundra Books, 2015)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Vintage International, 2015)

…courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in all of them or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.

  • Richard Flanagan

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)

If David was a man after this god’s own heart, as my inner voice had told me often and again, what kind of black-hearted deity held me in his grip?

  • Geraldine Brooks

Currently Reading:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (I’ll admit to being a bit stalled on this one though what I’ve read so far is terrific. The other night, Peter and I happened to watch a movie about David Foster Wallace called The End of the Tour that I would recommend to anyone interested in him/his writing.)

Pax – Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A Separate Peace – John Knowles

Book Review – Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

I loved this book. I loved the premise, I loved the characters, I loved the setting. Truly excellent.

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910. She dies immediately, unable to take her first breath due to the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.

Ursula Todd is born on 11 February 1910.She grows up to be a suburban housewife in England, to be friends with Eva Braun in 1930s Germany, to aid in rescues during Air Raids in 1940s London.

Over and over again, Ursula lives and dies and lives.

How might your life be different? What tiny choice or reaction might have made a huge change? What if you’d been just a few minutes later for that train? What if you hadn’t kissed that boy?

Ursula lives her life over and over again, vague premonitions causing her to take a different route, make a different choice. Sometimes she seems to have memories, to know people, she couldn’t possibly.

We watch as her choices alter where she goes, who she befriends, and her very personality. I found myself reading eagerly, rooting for Ursula to get a better ending, hoping for her death that she might begin again. This book was the best Choose Your Own Adventure I’ve ever read.

Ursula’s choices often change the lives of those around her. A young girl lives or dies based on a fluke of timing. Her brother’s future is altered. And some things stay the same in every life. Some marriages always occur, some deaths are unavoidable.

There are so many question raised in a story like this. Thankfully, Atkinson is a skilled writer who brings many of these questions to mind without voicing any. How much is Ursula aware of her unique circumstances? How much does she control? What would you change if you could? What do you have a responsibility to change?

There are no inevitabilities in Ursula’s life. There is not great romance waiting for her. There are happier and there are sadder versions of her life but the novel makes it clear that there is no perfect story line.

Partially, we can’t expect one when Ursula’s life is also shaped by world events and two world wars. In every version of her life, World War II looms large in Ursula’s adulthood. Her perspective shifts, her experiences of the war are hugely varied, but it seems unavoidable.

Scenes of Ursula’s life in London during World War II are vivid and well-written. Atkinson evokes all the grit and dirt and horror of a city at war, with small glimpses of a life still worth fighting for.

The characters who populate this novel are terrific. Ursula’s parents, Hugh and Sylvie, her siblings, her ditzy aunt. Sylvie looms large in Ursula’s childhood and at the beginning of the novel we get to delve into her mind and her past. She is a sympathetic, but not entirely likeable, figure and we watch the distance between mother and daughter grow and, sometimes, lessen, as Ursula re-lives her life. As Ursula grows, her father seems to as well, becoming a more and more important and tender figure every time she is reborn. Her brothers and sister each add something to the tale and to influence who Ursula is (with the possible exception of youngest brother Jimmy, who mostly feels tacked-on). Her brother Teddy’s fate turns out to be closely linked to Ursula’s own and this turns into a powerful motivation as she begins to become more aware of her unique circumstances. Characters and loveable and unlikeable and real all at once, a feat for any author to pull off.

Ursula’s relationship with each person – from her flighty aunt to the butcher’s boy – varies from timeline to timeline and it was delightful to witness a familiar character appear in a new version of Ursula’s life. Sometimes they shed a new light on an unanswered question in a previous version of her life but ultimately, Atkinson leaves us with many unanswered questions. I believe this was the best decision the author could have made. How could a story like Ursula’s ever really have an end?

Book Review – Galore by Michael Crummey

For a long time I’ve wanted to visited the Canadian East Coast. Pictures of lighthouses in Nova Scotia look beautiful. I’m a big fan of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who set the majority of her books on Prince Edward Island. But every book I’ve read about Newfoundland makes it sound like a cold, desolate place. (See: Annabel by Kathleen Winter).

Galore (Doubleday, 2009) is no exception. Michael Crummey, a lifelong Newfoundlander, doesn’t sugarcoat the Newfoundland experience. Especially in the late 19th century, which is when much of Galore takes place.

The novel opens with the strange scene of a whale beached and dying on the shores of a tiny community called Paradise Deep. Carving up the whale for parts, the people discover a man inside. A pale, mute, living man that they eventually name Judah.

We are steadily introduced to the people of Paradise Deep. The Irish Devines, headed by the Widow Devine, who reluctantly take Judah in. King-me Sellers, the richest man in an impoverished community, and his wife and grandson. These two families have both a history and a future that is deeply entwined. Unspoken, there is a theme laced through the novel of destiny, of things that have to be, and a story repeated until it turns out right.

This is the kind of book with a family tree at the beginning and you’ll be thankful for it.

The other characters of Paradise Deep are equally colourful. There’s Father Phelan, the wandering, drunken Catholic priest. Mrs. Gallery and her haunting vestige of a husband, Mr. Gallery. Obadiah and Azariah, brothers who aren’t related but are closely linked. And, of course, Judah, who seems to hold the luck and the tragedy of the entire community.

There are a few ups and a lot of downs in the life of Paradise Deep. Life is hard and often short. We witness deaths, births, marriages, and a strange, semi-pagan type of baptism.

I loved the trajectory of the novel, the way it continuously moved forward, both in time and plot. At the same time, this meant that you never seemed to have the time to delve deeply into any individual character. Much of their motivation and inner process remained hidden. Perhaps that was Crummey’s intention but it made the characters seem that much less realistic.

Crummey’s descriptions are excellent. With a few words here and there he paints a vivid picture of this cold, hard place on the edge of the world. Characters are easy to visualize, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes frightening. His writing may make me hesitate over visiting Newfoundland, but I’ll certainly be happy to read more of Crummey’s work.

My favourite description in Galore:

“His voice like the first taste of sugar after Lent, a sweetness that was almost hallucinatory.”