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

Three Queens and a Dame (And JK Rowling of course)

The idea of who you would invite round for your dream dinner party is not a new one, so today’s blog post is not going to revolutionise the bloggersphere, however like a university student spending a night in A&E there are rites of passage that we must all go through.

So, here’s mine.

 

The Food

Arguably the most important part of any dinner party. My only suggestion would be, keep it simple.

The chances are you’re going to have a fairly mixed crowd, so you’ve more chance of people being happy by picking something basic.

But basic doesn’t have to mean nasty or bland. It just means something you enjoy and know that you can make really, really well and easily.

For starters, Leek and Potato soup with bacon lard-ons (love that word), then my specialty – it has to be bangers and mash. Seriously, I could eat it all day.

For pudding, I’m not sure. I’m not great at puddings, so I think I might just steal my sister’s recipe for cheesecake.

 

The Entertainment

Really? There has to be entertainment?

This is what’s always bothered me about Come Dine With Me. If the food is right and the guests are right and the wine is flowing, there is no need for any planned activity.

The entertainment will come from the conversation. It may end up in an impromptu display of line dancing, or a game of strip poker. But you don’t need to structure fun.

 

The Guests

Well, here’s the biggie.

I think I’d probably have to have a few different dinner parties in order to entertain everyone I’d like to.

I’m gonna take four guests here. The first one would be Dame Julie Andrews. I’ve got a bit of a thing about her at the moment as she’s over here doing a bit of publicity for her ‘Evening with…’ tour.

She’s a fascinating woman who starred in what is probably the best film ever made. But ultimately, I don’t care what she has to say, as long as she’s saying it. Her speaking voice is beautiful.

Having seen Will Young on Question Time previously, he’s very educated, and eloquent man. He’s also a beautiful singer (perhaps he could be the entertainment?) as well as a beautiful man. If the party gets out of hand and we all get a bit raucous and drunk and Will wants to stay over for the night, well then, that’s fine too.

The next one is a bit of an obvious one if you’ve read my blog before – JK Rowling. I love her. I think she’s a brilliant writer and a real inspiration to me. I just want to ask her and talk to her about everything about the writing process.

Queen Elizabeth II.

I mean, how amazing would that be, right? She’s such a familiar face, but we know next to nothing about her.

I’d love the opportunity to interview her and hear candidly just what exactly makes her tick. What she likes and what she doesn’t.

 

So, that’s it. That’s my dinner party. A singer, a writer, an actress and a monarch. A fascinating (to me) mix, and now I’m a bit disappointed that it’s not actually going to happen.

 

I’m also surprised that I didn’t pick anyone from EastEnders. Is Pam St Clement free?

 

Prompt: Channel 4 invite you to do Come Dine With Me. Who’s invited and what’s your entertainment?

Welcome to my World

About eighteen months ago, I started a new blog that pretty much consisted of book reviews. I’d update it every now and then to tell the world just exactly what I thought about such important tomes as the Will Young biography and pretty much anything JK Rowling related.

Then, not too long ago, I was filling in another one of those interminable online dating profiles, and found myself listing ‘writing’ as one of my hobbies. And that’s when I realised… I don’t write anymore, not apart from those blog posts, which were coming few and far between.

I mean, sure, I wrote a few thousand words during NaNoWriMo last year – who didn’t? – but nothing since, and not a lot prior to that, either.

Life, that great procrastinator’s tool, has taken over, and stopped me from doing what I enjoy the most. It’s time for me to fight back, to start making sure I take some time to do the stuff that I like to do. The stuff that I want to do.

So that’s why this blog exists. Through this blog, I’m going to chart the difficulties I face within writing, difficulties that are both internal and external. It’s not for rest of the internet, it’s not for any record of prosperity, it’s for me.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t want people to come on this journey with me, from averaging 10,000 words a year to successful writer – in whatever form that takes.

The first few blog posts of this I’ve pre-planned and will be short to medium length pieces, detailing everything about those famous six wise men (they taught me all I knew, their names were what, where, when, why how and who), but after that I’m kind of free-balling.

These are the ramblings of a(nother) frustrated writer… Buckle up, kids. I don’t know where this one’s going.