Monthly Archives: September 2015

‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little LifestarstarstarThere has been a lot of hype about this book and it is favoured to win the Man Booker prize this year. The problem with hype is that expectations might be set too high. Man Booker contenders are not always highly readable, this one is, in the sense that the story is not difficult to follow and is strangely compelling given the subject matter. This is a heavy book, both in size and content. In my opinion, the power of the book was slightly diminished by its length (700+ pages); I think it could have been improved by some tightening up.

It is a difficult book to describe or to recommend because it is an intimate story that is best discovered by the reader, without any preconceived notions. However, in this case that is impossible. Despite its value, this book must come with a warning because parts of it are harrowing. With a focus on individual suffering, abuse, and self-harm, some may find this book too difficult to read. If it wins the Man Booker, it will be because of the experiential emotional impact the author has crafted. Yanagihara doesn’t shy away from brutality but she also doesn’t exploit–there is nothing gratuitous and everything is there for a reason. I especially appreciated realizing why people who are abused might go on to harm themselves.

The story line is rather unremarkable at first. Four bright students in the 90’s are beginning their professional lives. They have known each other through college and now they are trying to make their way in the ‘real’ world, buoyed by their friendship. Willem is an actor, Jude is a lawyer, Malcolm is an architect, and JB is an artist. But as the novel progresses, Jude emerges as the one who is a bit different. There seem to be things in his past that he is suffering from. His friends have a sense for this; they sensitively make quiet accommodation for his pain. And as the novel progresses we learn through flashbacks about Jude and his ‘little life’ we see in sharp contrast the difference between love and un-love.  Incredibly well drawn, Jude is a character I will not soon forget. Incidentally, St. Jude the apostle is the patron saint of lost causes.

As with The People in the Trees, Yanagihara gently and deftly deals with dark and disturbing matters as she delivers in equal proportion both horror and beauty. There is a fairy tale quality to her writing which seems to soften the emotional devastation, and in both books, abuse is the subject. In People in the Trees the focus is on the perpetrator and in this novel, the victim is front and centre. This is an important book for those who have been affected by abuse. Abuse has the power to distort how people see the world and affects how they behave. I do hope that this novel has the power to bring healing and understanding to those who have experienced suffering at the hands others. There is a lot of love, loyalty and true friendship in this book as well.

‘The Mountain Story’ by Lori Lansens

The Mountain Storystarstarstarstar
Five Days. Four Hikers. Three Survivors. 
The tease on this book cover is irresistible. Canadian author Lori Lansens’ latest book is a cracking good read. Four hikers are stranded on a California mountain. The survival story is harrowing but not the kind where they eat one another…so far I’ve been able to avoid those types. Wilfred (Wolf) narrates this suspenseful novel, telling the story to his son. So we know that Wolf is one of the survivors, which is ironic because his purpose for climbing the mountain was actually to end his own life. Buckle in folks, you are going to need a rainy weekend or a few sick days for this one!

The story is well crafted, redemptive and kept me going to the very end. I might have enjoyed some more character development of the three other hikers, they seemed a bit two-dimensional beside Wolf who we learn a lot about. But I couldn’t put the book down. I must say it gripped me from the start right through to the end with no let up whatsoever.

Lansens not only gives us a compelling story to be immersed in, there is also an undercurrent of respect and awe for nature in this book. We enjoy things like hiking because we enjoy the physicality and rigour, but also because being a part of nature can somehow speak to us. It helps us to reflect on our lives and our place in the world. “The climb speaks to our character, the view speaks to our souls.” But nature is not to be toyed with, it can be challenging and perilous in equal parts to its beauty.

The GirlsLansens has three other books, only one of which I have read, but it is one I would also highly recommend. The Girls is an amazing intimate story of conjoined twins Rose and Ruby. I will never forget the opening paragraph of The Girls,  which is narrated by the sisters:
 “I have never looked into my sisters eyes. I have never bathed alone. I have never stood in the grass at night and raised my arms to the beguiling moon. I’ve never used an airplane bathroom. Or worn a hat. Or been kissed like that. I’ve never driven a car. Or slept through the night. Never a private talk. Or a solo walk. I’ve never climbed a tree. Or faded into a crowd. So many things I’ve never done, but oh, how I’ve been loved. And, if such things were to be, I’d live a thousand lives as me, to be loved so exponentially.”

‘Circling the Sun’ by Paula McClain

Circling the Sunstarstarstar“A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.” Beryl Markham

A controversial and complicated character, Beryl Markham grew up as wild and spirited as the horses her father bred. She went on to remarkable and diverse achievements as a horse trainer, aviator, writer (West with the Night), and adventurer. Her personal life and unconventional upbringing (being brought to Kenya as a child and then abandoned by her mother) was always a striving for adventure and relationship which brought her to a record-setting solo flight across the ocean and the third in a passionate love triangle with Karen Blixen and Denys Finch Hatton that you may remember from the memoir “Out of Africa.” This book definitely motivates me to read West with the Night to hear from Markham herself.

Master storyteller Paula McClain has done it again. She brought us Ernest Hemingway’s European world in The Paris Wife and now she brings us Beryl Markham’s colonial Kenya. McClain draws the reader in with historical biography that is so well described and as it should be–a compelling fiction but including a lot of fact. McClain does an amazing job of researching her subject’s history and making it come to life. Having lived myself in East Africa for so many years made this is a particularly special book for me, but I think anyone would enjoy it.

As with The Paris Wife, McClain has some interesting additional features on her website like an interview with the author and a reading group guide–well worth a look: Paula McClain Website
There’s some incredible photos in this youtube slide show (you can always mute the annoying music) although it is “West with the Night” by Bond :)).