The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

The old saying goes that there are only two things certain in life – death and taxes. The similarity between them is that it’s next to impossible to work either of them out.

 

There’s one other certain thing – that is if you try to write a bestselling book about people waiting for taxes, it will almost certainly fail.

 

Luckily Chloe Benjamin has written about death, a far more fascinating subject. Specifically about four siblings growing up in New York in the seventies who hear whispers of a woman that can tell you the day you’re going to die.

 

They visit her, and one by one they discover their unique days. We see through the eyes of Varya, the eldest, and the last to go inside the woman’s apartment.

 

We and Varya learn that her expected date is long in the future, an old woman, she’ll be eighty-eight. She joins the others, but none of them share their date.

 

We follow their lives as they grow up –  the reader is not aware of the other dates either, although there are clues along the way – and each of them approach life in a different way.

 

Without wanting to spoil anything for anyone who might read, I found Varya’s approach the most interesting. The contrast between the way she chooses to live her long life is interesting in contrast to the others.

 

And that’s the question the book is trying to answer. What’s better, a long life lived carefully or a short one filled with passion and adventure?

 

The more I read, the more I started to think about it. As a reader, we didn’t know when they were going to die, we just knew that they would. We didn’t even know that they knew when they were going to die – they just had a date from an old woman, no hard proof.

 

This is the way we all live our lives – none of us know when we’re going, all we can be certain of is that we will. The difference here, though, is that they are confronted with their own mortality when they are kids.

 

The eponymous Immortalists are not our four characters, they are all children. All of us believe we’re going to live forever when we’re young – this book explores that moment when we realise that one day, we too will die.

 

The characters in this book become obsessed with it, some of them fight it, some of them embrace it – all of them succumb, eventually.

 

The Immortalists is a well-written exploration of death, the characters becoming mouthpieces for society in general. It doesn’t shy away from some hard truths, nor does it quite go down the route you would expect it to. It doesn’t try to solve the mysteries of death, instead, it tries to explore the questions that come up in life.

 

What is it all about? What should we do with it?

 

I’ve been trying to think of something that this book is like, but it’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before. I enjoyed it it, though, and it shows us a slice of America in a similar way that other big novels have done before. If you’ve enjoyed things like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes LastI think you’ll like this one.

 

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin is published on the 8th March by Tinder Press

Muse by Jessie Burton

When I spoke about Hex last week, I commented about how unique plots come along so rarely. It took a familiar plot of small town paranoia and hung it on the creepiest witch I’ve come across in fiction, forming a plot that will stay with me for a long time.

 

With Muse we get something similar. It takes a plot that’s almost soap-opera in it’s familial twists and hangs it on something completely unexpected – the provenance of a painting. Unexpected for two reasons.

 

  • Who would have thought you could make a book about the journey of a painting through the twentieth century interesting
  • Who would have thought you could do it twice?

 

The story of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch relied on the journey of a painting outlining somebody’s life, and Muse does the same thing.

 

It’s not a bad thing, it just struck me as odd.

 

The details of this particular plot are simple, proving that you don’t have to have a complicated plot to have a good book.

 

A few chance encounters lead to Odelle meeting a man who becomes quite infatuated with her. He tracks her down to working for an art dealer, and so takes along a painting that belonged to his recently deceased mother.

 

It turns out to be painted by Isaac Robles, a Spanish artist who disappeared during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s.

 

Through a series of flashbacks we learn about Isaac’s history and how the painting came to be in the possession of Lawrie Scott.

 

The question many people will be asking is “is it better than The Miniaturist?” – and I’m ashamed to have to admit, I have no idea. Yes, I am that one person who hasn’t yet read Jesse Burton’s 2014 hit.

 

But I can tell you if it’s a good book or not – and I loved it. The plot was great, simple, yet effective enough to not quite deliver what you were expecting.

 

It scores 3.5 out of 5 on my scale which is lower than I thought it would come out at.

 

It’s lowest score comes in the humour category. There is definitely a moment or two where it made me smile, but there isn’t a laugh out loud moment, and I can’t recall any particular moment.

 

Obviously not every book is a hysterical read from start to finish, but a high score in the ‘sad’ stakes usually balances those books out – this one didn’t really achieve that for me.

 

It didn’t particularly elicit any major emotions from me, it left me a little cold, and I think that’s because apart from Odelle, none of the characters particularly drew me in. There was something off about all of them that left me detached. Subsequently, I was rushing the larger parts of the book that didn’t feature Odelle.

 

Maybe the other characters were weaker, maybe Odelle was just so strong a character, but the combination of them, in retrospect, didn’t work for me.

 

Sometimes, that’s the problem with reading a book for review. You think too much into it.

 

3.5 out of 5 is a healthy score but Muse was a bit like a drunken night out. I enjoyed it while it was happening, but looking back on it, while I don’t regret it, I’m not exactly in a hurry to repeat it.

 

Still, this I think will be my benchmark book for this year. This is on the right side of a good book, and definitely one I would recommend, but it’s tipped over into that category by a strong plot, without it, this would be forgettable.

 

The Muse by Jessie Burton is published in Hardback in June 2016

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

It’s not often that I’m wrong, it’s an even more infrequent occurrence that I admit that I’m wrong. But I was.

Earlier this year, I read A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale and I wouldn’t stop raving about it. I even, what now seems a touch prematurely, considering it was January, billed it as my book of 2015.

I was wrong.

And that’s not to do down A Place Called Winter, it’s still within my top five books of all time, and most other years, would easily win the book of the year title.

But, a few months ago, a book by Hanya Yanagihara landed on my desk at work. It’s a big brick of a book, over seven hundred pages, and I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t even read the blurb, but I was told by a colleague that I would enjoy it. Mostly because he knew I enjoyed The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

So what was I expecting? The great American novel. A bit of a saga. Not much else.

The blurb tells us it is the tale of four friends, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. But really, it is the story of Willem and Jude. But REALLY, it is the story of Jude.

We meet them when they’ve first moved to New York and Willem and Jude are looking for a place to live together. It is made clear at the very beginning, they are not a couple, nor are they brothers. They are simply friends. Best friends.

And that is what the story is about; the importance of friendship, how it effects our lives and how it can be bigger, yet more uncategorised than romantic love, than sexual love.

A Little Life is the story of love between men. It explores all aspects of it, and it does so beautifully, and yet so tragically.

It’s very difficult to talk about this novel without giving anything away, or indeed without going on for pages about the tiny point that you want to talk about, so perhaps the best thing to do is to tell you about the structure of the book.

The titular little life in question is that of Jude St Francis, and it is through a non-linear construction that we learn about it. He is mysterious, and reluctant to talk about his past, to the point that his friends, his closest friends know nothing of him, except not to ask.

It is over seven hundred pages long, but each section, each chapter, feels like its own book. We learn in them the stories of all four characters to varying degrees, and though some of the chapters are as long as eighty pages, the prose and the characters are so elegantly drawn, it is impossible not to get swept away.

Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote in the Bookseller that she read the book in one night. This is unbelievable, believable, and unbelievable again all at once.

Initially, the size of the book is off-putting. It certainly doesn’t strike you as a quick read and the first thirty to forty pages are confusing. There are so many male twenty-something characters that it is difficult to tell them apart.

But then, something clicks and you’re not just able to tell the characters apart, but they have started to become part of you. The book starts to become part of you and although you kind of broadly know what’s going to happen, you have to read on. And that’s when you understand how it’s possible to have read it one night.

The desire to read on is strong, but what I can’t understand, is how anyone can be emotionally stable enough to read it in one sitting. There is a point about a third of the way through – and I don’t think this spoils anything – where the tragic background of Jude starts to become clear, and you realise that this is a book that’s going to break your heart.

That’s not to say it is filled with unrelenting misery. I read A Little Life at the same time that I downloaded Will Young’s latest album 85% Proof. It’s a typical Will Young album, cracking vocals, a little bit dance-y but quite melancholy, but I had it playing in the background as I read parts of the book, and every song on it seemed to fit the plot.

Three songs stand out:

Thank You – a song from Jude to Caleb

Blue – a song from Willem to Jude, that actually contains the line “We live a little life”

And Joy – a song that is melodically upbeat and happy, but is lyrically about hope. “Nothing really matters, we’ve got everything we need, take a big leap and we will feel joy.”

It’s a song about daring to hope that things are going to work out, and that is the pervading feeling that you get from this book. Life is miserable, bad things happen, but the characters in this book are not just living little lives, they’re living great ones, because of the relationships and friendships that they form with each other.

There’s a whole section of the book in the last third called “The Happy Years” and by the time you get there and you see the heading, your heart sinks, because you know that nothing is going to stay happy, by this point, you know it’s a book that’s not only going to break your heart, it’s going to shatter it and use the bits to create itself a home.

And there are moments during The Happy Years where you’re screaming at the characters, urging them to just… well, I shan’t say. But you are. They’re making themselves miserable and it’s unbearable.

Then, at the end of The Happy Years, at their happiest, something happens, in the last three to four paragraphs. I had to put the book down and walk away.

It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were maybe a hundred pages or so left. I had time to finish it before going for dinner at my mum’s, but by this point, I knew that I would not be in any state come the end of the book, where I would be able to be around people, let alone make small talk with my granddad and mum.

I came back in the evening, curled up on the sofa with a glass of wine and began to read.

I started with Will Young playing in the background, but it became clear after just one page that the music wasn’t suitable. Not because it didn’t match, but because I was being sucked into this world. Into Jude’s world.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that first part of the last section is told from Jude’s point of view – as I’ve already said, the book is told in a non-linear structure – and I started to cry.

I’m not a big crier. I’m not emotional. But sometimes when watching a film, or a TV program, a small tear will escape. It happens more often with books, where one or two tears will trickle down my face. It last happened with A Place Called Winter, and previously to that it happened with the book that I won’t name (I’ve mentioned this book before, but it’s becoming less and less important to me that I don’t share it, perhaps one day, I will).

In the space of 98 pages, I cried four times. A trickle or two of a tear. Maybe on one occasion three tears, because I really screwed up my face and squeezed that third one out. This was surprising enough to me, to know that A Little Life had truly affected me, but then…

The last section of the book is a letter from Harold – Jude’s adoptive father, and it had made a tear escape already once. And then there is the payoff to a moment three or four hundred pages earlier and I immediately started to sob.

Big, unmanly, tears misting my eyes, properly crying.

I had to put the book down, two pages from the end, because I couldn’t see to read. I had to compose myself before I could bring myself to carry on any further.

There are many more things I could say about A Little Life, and I could probably talk about it and digest it and analyse it forever, and I probably will, but for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll just add these last few points:

  • It’s taken me a week to even contemplate writing this post, such did it effect me that I couldn’t face thinking about it.
  • I’ve many more books in my ‘To Read’ pile, but I’ve regressed to Harry Potter. I need to cleanse my pallet so to speak, before I move on to anything else, and I know that the JK Rowling series will not be diminished by what has been read before.
  • To my sister – who will likely be one of the few people to read this review. This is my Moulin Rouge.

To people who want more than plot from their books, the kind of person who might enjoy The Goldfinch, then I would ask you to please read this book, to stick with it past that first confusing section (which by the way, I think is intentional, because it seems ridiculous now, that one could confuse any of these characters).

I was wrong when I said A Place Called Winter was my book of the year. It’s still a very good book, one of the best. But, if there’s a book better than A Little Life, I don’t have the emotional strength to read it for at least six months, and so I am crowning A Little Life my book of 2015.

It’s probably the book of my life.
A Little Life is published on August 13th 2015