Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara has been awaiting my attention, quietly on my Kindle, for well over a year. It is not the only book waiting there by a long way. It is, however, one of the few I have skimmed past a little too quickly and a little too often. It is one of those I frequently have glanced at and thought ‘Not now, the time isn’t right.’

It is probably the only book I have thought about deleting, unread.

In short the thought of this book has unnerved and, quite frankly, scared me.

As a teacher of young, vulnerable children, as a mother of four, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read this book. I couldn’t find a calm period in our hectic lives when I felt ready to handle the subject matter. When is a good time to tackle a book charting the lifelong effects of sustained and wide reaching childhood abuse? Never, it seemed.

I was also, consciously and subconsciously, questioning whether this book should even have been written. Was it morally right to make this kind of experience into fiction, into some kind of entertainment?

And yet this book has been recommended to me so many times, by so many people. And every time they have been people with kindness, compassion and intelligence at their very core. It was one of these readers who persuaded me to stop skimming past and take a chance.

So almost 2 weeks ago I took the chance. I promised myself I could break my unwritten rule and do the thing I find so inexplicably hard; DNF if need be.

I started to read.

On Saturday I finished, wondering as I reached the end why it was I had waited so long.

This book has taken me over a week to read. In a normal reading week I usually get through 2 -3 books. Practically giving up on TV and having a husband who works away in the week has seen my reading steadily increase in the past 2 years. A Little Life has taken me significantly longer to read than any other book in recent times. This is not to do with its 800+ pages, and everything to do with it’s message.

Even if I possessed days of free reading time I couldn’t have read this book any faster than I did. It was the intensity of this book, much more than it’s length, that slowed my pace. The feelings and empathy that were provoked within me demanded that I took time out. Time to break away, digest, grieve and reflect. This book is beautiful, powerful and for all that it is hard hitting and raw, and sometimes just too painful to assimilate.

At first glance this book is about the relationship between four college friends, at the beginning of their professional lives, living in NYC. Malcolm, a privileged black and talented young architect, trying to escape his parents shadow. Willem, a young actor, alone in the world after the death of his brother and parents. JB, a fiery gay artist, feted and pampered by his matriarchal family. Jude, a brilliant young lawyer, physically disabled, secretive and watchful.

Before too long the focus shifts to Jude, for this is Jude’s story. It is the story of his childhood trauma, abuse so complex and far reaching it touches every inch of his day to day life. His choice of apartment, choice of career; all touched by his past experiences.

This novel is possibly the most comprehensive and heartbreakingly powerful of portrait of abuse you likely to come across. Within it Yanagihara explores the lifelong relationship Jude has with self harm. She charts it’s accidental beginnings, how it becomes a way of using physical pain to reset his emotional terror. Crucially, she represents it’s non linear nature. This is not a static relationship, like other more acceptable and conventional bonds. Jude’s relationship with self harm ebbs and flows. It changes it’s form depending on opportunity and circumstance, but it never ends.

Throughout the novel we see Jude attempting to build circles of trust, investing in relationships that, despite his desperate desires, can never be complete due to his lack of self worth. His career sky rockets and yet he continues to views himself through the past’s tainted eyes. He feels a constant need to apologise, to justify and readjust, living with the ‘creature’ of abuse inside, always one step away from fight or flight. Even pleasure causes pain; his certain fear of when will the past catch up with the present is never far away. and often overwhelming.

The narrative also explores the complex relationship that exists between abused and abusers. We come to appreciate that when abuse has been not only sustained, but delivered at the hands of caregiver, then victims feel their personality is shaped by their experiences. Jude feels that some positive parts of his life can be attributed to his abuser, and this is an ongoing struggle of acceptance. Within this story is contained the very best and the very worst of human nature. There is rarely black or white, just deepening shades of grey, and thankfully some blinding flashes of lightness.

Survival from abuse is not portrayed as a simple upward recovery. For Jude, we read about many ‘rock bottoms’, many triggers, many simple solutions that turn out to be anything but. There are heart rending explorations of future relationships, where patterns of abuse repeat themselves in a way Jude sees as inevitable.

And yet Jude is not without kindness in his life. Throughout the novel, despite his difficulties, Jude has friends, people who care deeply. For the reader these characters fulfil a number of functions. On a practical level they allow us some perspective. They provide a break from the deeply complex nature of Jude’s life and thoughts. They allow us to breathe, pause and provide colour, sometimes humour. They are a mirror that reflect the best of Jude, reflecting his innate brilliance, intelligence and potential. They allow us to see beyond the abused individual and appreciate other qualities that define him.

More than this they are ripples in Jude’s pond. Their presence and reactions to his actions and thoughts allow Yanagihara to explore and portray, yet again, the real and far reaching effects of abuse. We see the ever patient Willem, his closest friend, accept the darkness within Jude and hold it lightly in his hand, waiting patiently for Jude to reveal his truths. Our heart breaks when Jude begs friends to kept terrible secrets, asking them to carry burdens too hard to bear.

I finished this book 4 days ago and before I could even begin to write any kind review I needed time to pause and reflect. Part of me wondered whether I was even able or entitled to write a review. Yet it was inevitable I would. This novel might have broke my heart multiple times but it won’t leave me in a hurry. Whether I have a produced a review to do it justice is entirely another matter.

Jude has been in my head pretty much constantly since I left his world. So many thoughts, perspectives and questions going round and round. And I have been returning again and again to the fact that Jude was a character, who despite his terrible experiences, was thrown the lifeline of opportunity. He was rescued, he was educated, he had people who believed in him, who advocated for him; good, unselfish friends who could see beyond the scars and kept coming back.

And I find myself asking “What of those who don’t have this opportunity? What becomes of those who don’t have advocates and aren’s rescued?”

Because that is the real tragedy of this book. The fact that this isn’t an isolated story, one that never happens in the real world. It does every day. And not all individuals, children or adults, have Jude’s opportunities. Not all have a voice, have ears that will listen, have the skills or financial support to find their path. What happens to those individuals?

And that is why Yanaghari and authors like her have the right to create such stories. In a recent Guardian article, Yanagahari suggest that her intention in writing this book was never to shock or provoke. She believes “that extreme lives exist and therefore should be present in literature.” So while abuse is some ones reality, some one has to keep documenting it, talking about it, bringing it into the public consciousness. Despite my initial concerns this book never feels gratuitous or exploitative. It does shock, take your breath away and makes you think, really think, about the unrelenting effects of abuse. It raise the stakes of awareness like nothing else I have yet encountered.

I would I recommend this book?

Yes, without a doubt, but not without some stipulations. Don’t read until you are ready. In all honest, by the end I was reading quickly, possibly even rushing to the conclusion. Not because this isn’t a ‘good’ book. It is beyond ‘good’. ‘Good’ doesn’t come close. I am still searching for the right word to sum up my feelings for this book. No, I was rushing to the end because I couldn’t quite bear it anymore. It was so intense, so absorbing, it was changing my mood.

But one day, when the time is right for you, spend a little time with Jude. He deserves his story to be heard.

Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life.

My Sister the Serial Killer. What a way to end the week!

Weekly catch up…

So the inevitable happened. The new school term started, life got crazy and I didn’t manage to blog this week.

This whole blogging business is new to me and I am learning on the job. So first lesson learnt; either have a few blogs in hand or resign yourself to one post a week. Watch this space!

However despite my woeful blog presence I have been meeting some lovely booky people through the world of blogging. I have found there are more fantastic book blogs out there than I thought possible, and amazingly, the number of those lovely people interacting with and following BookBound has steadily grown. So thank you one and all.

What I have read this week…

Whilst keeping up the blog might have eluded me I have still manage to find time to read. I have managed to tuck away three books from my Women’s Prize TBR pile. The Bank Holiday weekend enabled me read My Sister the Serial Killer, (review below), Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luisella and Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn.

Through the working week I was sustained by the fantastic Signs for Lost Children -Sarah Moss. Moss is a relatively new find for me but I am growing in admiration for her with each book I read. She deserves, and will get, a blog post of her own very soon. In the meantime I am pinning my colours to her mast and hoping that she will be on the Women’s Prize Short List, to be announced on Monday , 29th April, for her excellent novella Ghost Wall.

What I am currently reading …

So to be honest I have gone slightly off piste and started A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara. These is one of the books that has been waiting patiently on my Kindle for an age. It is also a book which gets a lot of attention, and which seems to divide people quite dramatically. Always in the market for a controversial read! My Kindle informs me I am only 4% in; too early for judgement yet but I am certainly intrigued. Given it’s estimated reading length of over 18 hours, next week’s blog catch up might be Ground Hog day! I will keep you posted.

I also have half an eye on Jeanette Winerson’s The Daylight Gate. Inspired by my reading of The Familiars, this is her take on the story of the Pendle Witch trials. Never yet been let down by Winterson’s work, so this will be my balm if I end up in the ‘hate camp’ for A Little Life!

And to the main event! A review of ‘My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinka Braithwaite.’

I seem to have read a few debut novels this year, but nothing has yet been quite so darkly delightful as My Sister the Serial Killer. For a first novel is is extraordinary. Quite simply, breathtaking. If appreciate a black comedy, then I challenge you to find something quite so accomplished this year. And if you can, sling it my way because I definitely want to read it!

Set in present day Lagos, the novel begins with Korede in a bathroom, meticulously clearing away the evidence of her sister’s third kill, yet another boyfriend despatched in unclear circumstances.

Korede; the older sister. Steady, a reliable nurse, she is the ‘voodoo doll’ to her sister’s ‘bratz’. Ayoola, the younger, outwardly charming, creative and gregarious .

And a beautiful narcissist with an appetite for murder.

Braithwaite’s depiction of the two sisters, in indeed all her characters, is flawless. Here is a master class in the use of the written word. She is one of those rare authors who uses each word with precision and meaning. No room here for lengthy, evocative descriptions of thoughts and motivation. Tell us instead of a young woman who carries a knife ‘the way other women carry tampons’, who dances to Whitney Houston’ ‘the musical equivalent of M and M’s’, just days after she ‘ gave a man to the sea’.

Or show us Yinka, the hospital receptionist, Queen of the back handed compliment and sarcasm. Let her suggest, through a cutting one liner, how straight and upstanding Korede aspires to be.

And show us the daily jeopardy of the sister’s relationship by introducing Tade. Tade, the handsome young doctor who Korede worships from afar, who is destined to become entangled with Ayoola. It is through fear for his safety that Korede is seen in a struggle between loyalty and morality. A struggle that is enhanced and reflected throughout the book.

Add in a a coma patient as a Korede’s confidant and the tension is almost unbearable.

Braithwaite has the confidence of a writer who lets the characters actions speaks for themselves. Not one character is wasted, not one word is excessive. Everything links and builds to a seamless portrait of a damaged people heading towards disaster.

Even Ayoola method of killing is telling and unequivocal. Her victims are stabbed, always stabbed.

From it’s first appearance knife is an important symbol, almost it’s own character. Loaded with symbolism, slowly revealed. In true serial killer style, Ayoola will not be parted from her weapon of choice, even though it holds the power to damn her. The blade she always carries is a relic of her past, wielded and worshipped by her abusive father. Dead ten years, his presence in the book is undeniable, threatening and also mysterious. Clues to the sister’s current state are found within his life and his death. Half truths and almost revelations build to make the reader, question their preconceptions, and reassess what they think they know.

Within these pages there is much to be said for the power of both women and men. How corrupting power is, to what lengths will we go to hold on to power and what happens when the power we craves begins to destroy us.

Power is not only in the hands of the living. There are legacies left behind which shape and guide, be they the poetry of the third victim Femi, or the charade of a memorial service for a long dead and much feared father. Braithwaite has clear messages surrounding the ability of the past and our daily interactions to mould our outlook on life. Who is the more powerful, men or women? Well Braithwaite is going to let you decide.

It is hard to hide my admiration for this book, so why even try. I devoured it in one day, scowling and maybe even growling at any teenager who dare to suggest that may they might want to eat!

I will stick my neck out, break my own self imposed rule and predict that this one will make the Women’s prize Short List on Monday. If it doesn’t I will be wanting to know why!

Grab yourselves a copy and enjoy.

Book mentioned in this blog…

  • My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinka Braithwaite
  • A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara
  • Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luisella
  • Signs for Lost Children – Sarah Moss
  • Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn
  • The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson

This week’s reads…part 1

First week of blogging about about books and it’s been eventful. I never expected to meet so many other great bloggers and book enthusiasts. It has opened up my reading world even more. Which is great… but OH MY GOODNESS the TBR pile is starting to totter!

Too many books not enough time, as usual!

So…moving on, this week’s book reviews are below. Quite a mix in terms of genre and certainly time period. Make of them what you will!!

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

A historical drama dealing with The Pendle witch trials, this was a read for one of my ‘real life’ book groups. It was chosen as it is set very, very locally to us. I am not sure if I am just a perpetual child, easily pleased or both, but I still get that strange thrill when I see the name of a place I know really well in print. So from that respect at least The Familiars was a winner!

The story centres on Fleetwood Shutteworth, the 17 year old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. Her dilemma is that age old problem of being required to provide an heir for her husband. When the novel begins Fleetwood is pregnant for the fourth time and has just discovered she is unlikely to survive another pregnancy. Cue the arrival of Alice, a local wise woman and midwife. Fleetwood and Alice develop a bond, and when Alice becomes embroiled within the Pendle witch trials, Fleetwood is desperate to save her in order to preserve her own life and that of her unborn child.

By far the most interesting element of this book lies in how it presents the theme of power,predominantly, but not exclusively women’s power. The whole book is a power play. Different characters hold and exploit different types of power at different times.

As has been so familiar with the lot of women throughout history, Fleetwood’s power lies in her potential ability to bring a pregnancy to term and ultimately produce an heir. Alice’s power is in her knowledge and skill passed down from generation to generation. Other women, including the child Jennet, implicate their neighbours through the power of gossip.

The witch hunts of the 17th Century did more than just pursue individual women. Crucially they stripped whole groups of women, particularly poor women, of what little power they held. The extension of the remit of the witch hunters to include the use of herbs and charms, local ‘wise women’, who had served their communities for generations as nurses, counsellors and midwives, were suddenly in danger.

The whole novel can be interpreted as a struggle for power; Fleetwood fighting to gain power over her husband, the authorities and even her own body; local officials are fighting for the power that comes with the King’s favour; Protestants fighting to maintain and deepen their power over the forbidden Catholic religion.

This book has a lot to say. It is readable, moves quickly and is a promising debut.

However, there are issues. None of them undermine the message and integrity of the novel but they do, at times come pretty close.

There is a lack of subtly within the writing. For example the narrator talks of past and unwanted companions, and, as if by magic, another companion appears. Symbols of powers such as Richard’s falcon used to show that he can control such a independent creature, serves as a warning to Fleetwood. And yet this symbolism is sometimes not subtle. Throughout there is the feeling that motifs are heavily signposted rather than left for the reader to discover.

Something else that didn’t sit comfortably was the characterisation of Fleetwood. Whilst I am always willing to embrace an independent woman, I remain unconvinced that her portrayal was historically accurate. Would a young wife, with a difficult childbearing history, now pregnant with a longed for heir, be allowed to ride around the countryside, unchaperoned at this point in history? Particularly when she was in danger of jeopardising the reputation of her husband?

Over all this was a good book, a solid debut which I think will be appreciated by those who enjoyed ‘The Silent Companions’ by Laura Purcell and ‘The Wicked Cometh’ by Laura Carlin. Worth a look would also be ‘The Good People’ by Hannah Kent.

It’s has certainly inspired me to find out more about The Pendle Witches. I have already ordered Jeanette Winterson’s ‘ The Daylight Gate’ and may well be heading back to ‘The Crucible’ by Arthur Miller, the staple of my Sixth Form years.

Books mentioned in this blog…

The Wicked Cometh – Laura Carlin

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

The Good People – Hannah Kent

The Silent Companions – Laura Purcell

The Crucible – Arthur Miller

The Daylight Gate – Jeanette Winterson

Next up …

’Graceland’ by Bethan Roberts