Depressing Yet Compelling: A Little Life – By Hanya Yanagihara

Fictional Memoir, Romance

I had heard good things about A Little Life, so when its cover – a classic New York tenement building – caught my eye in the bookstore, I bought it. Little did I know that the book was far from a light-hearted narrative of life in the city. Although mostly set in New York, the book is laser-focused on the lives of four (and later just two) friends who met in college; the city is merely the background, the real-world grounding, to the narrative. Yanagihara establishes the group’s dynamic at the outset: Jude is reserved, Willem is charismatic and caring, JB is funny and self-absorbed, and Malcolm is nervous and self-conscious. In the beginning, all four of them narrate various chapters, offering the reader an insight into their thoughts on each other, but as the book progresses, it focuses increasingly on Jude and Willem. As a result, JB and Malcolm’s characters are less developed or interesting. This is even more true for the many side characters referenced throughout the book. Since it is a particularly long novel (over 700 pages), I found it difficult to remember characters who were introduced at various points and then mentioned again much later. Luckily, however, this doesn’t adversely affect the reading experience. In fact, since it is often difficult to figure out the narrator at the start of the chapters, with few clues at your disposal, I have to believe that this state of disorientation and fogginess is intentional, especially as so much of the book is about memory.

“Why, then, does he insist on revisiting and replaying events that happened so long ago? Why can he not simply take pleasure in the present?”

p. 461

By the time I was halfway through the book, I was already tired from crying so much. One step forward in Jude’s life was always followed by two steps back; this was true throughout the book. While making for an infuriating and depressing read, Yanagihara calls into question assumptions about the recovery process from trauma, arguing not only that recovery is non-linear, but that it can’t always work if the person doesn’t want it. The author refuses to give the reader a natural narrative arc or a happy ending. At times, it felt like she was daring me to give up, to read something more light-hearted, just as Jude tests everyone in his life. I’m glad I stuck it out – the characters are irresistible, even if sometimes unrealistic, and I had to know how it all would end – but I was also relieved when it was over. Parts of the book are physically painful to read. It would most likely be triggering for people who have been affected by sexual abuse (including child abuse), domestic violence, self-harm, and suicide. I wouldn’t blame anyone for putting it down because they found it too upsetting. Certainly, if you’re looking for joy in your reading material, look elsewhere. But it can be strangely cathartic to cry about someone else’s (fictional) suffering – it may help you to reflect on your own life.

A Little Life is undoubtedly brilliant, yet I hesitate to recommend it. It’s not for everyone. I can’t even say that my reading experience was enjoyable, really. It’s a long, painful, depressing read. The bright points – the few times when Jude realizes that he is loved – feel that much brighter, but they also make the lows even more gut-wrenching. If you persevere, though, the book will show you the best and worst of humanity. Few books will make you feel as much as A Little Life will.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Medium

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

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We Are Not Ourselves By Matthew Thomas 

Fictional Memoir

Growing up in a poor, Irish-American family, Eileen Tumulty dreamed of a better, more generically American life: one that would enable her to shed her family name that connotes her unstable, tumultuous circumstances. As a little girl, she was forced into the tiresome, repetitious role of carer for her parents, leading to her almost inevitable future as a nurse. She meets Ed Leary, her future husband, on a blind date set up by her roommate. Although she had low hopes for anything substantive to come of the New Year’s Eve get together, she is pleasantly surprised when she meets him, finding him ambitious, thoughtful and considerate. Her feelings intensify when he whispers in her ear, ‘I realise you didn’t have to do this, and I promise to try to make it worth your time.’ She falls in love with him, something she didn’t think she was capable of doing. Despite his similar upbringing, he seems to fit her aspirations for her future, as she sees his potential for success and wealth: ingredients with which to build a stable, comfortable life. Her attraction to him is a reaction against her father, who stands for everything she is trying to run away from: he is most interested in social status and personal relationships, on being ‘the big man’; Ed, on the other hand, is uninterested in having a popular reputation in the community, focusing only on his neuroscientific research. At least he appears to appreciate Eileen, unlike her father, who barely notices her. However, when obsessively pursuing his projects, he often neglects the people around him, ironically not unlike the way her father treated her when she was a child. In time, Eileen realises they have different aspirations, and want different things from life: when Merck offers him a job, including a lab of his own, state-of-the-art equipment and a team of assistants, he rejects it for fear of becoming their puppet, instead opting for a modest career in teaching. His most important virtue in life is integrity, whilst Eileen holds success and growth as higher priorities. A little while after their son Connel is born, the narrative is split between him and his mother. In contrast to Eileen’s worrisome, supportive attitude, Connel’s narrative consists of his somewhat self-absorbed views and experiences of life in the Leary family. When Ed starts to act strange, Eileen and Connel feel confused and isolated; their insights on Ed’s slow deterioration are personable glimpses of living with someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

We Are Not Ourselves is eloquently, elegantly written, with mostly short sentences strung together that have a flowing, enticing effect on the reader. I was, at least in the beginning, so absorbed in the book that I felt as though I was Eileen, living through all her hardships and aspirations. Although effective, as this forced me to experience the persistent challenges that Eileen faced, this also meant that it made for quite a depressing read, as it was long, slow-paced and tiresome. Consequently, events in the book affected me less and less, despite their seemingly increasing importance. Additionally, characters that were intended to be interesting underwhelmed me: Connel’s self-absorbed, under-achieving ways irritated me, rather than made me sympathize with him, and although Ed is enigmatic, I was not intrigued to know more about him. A development near the end does humanise Ed, but too little, too late. While I understand why it had to be so long, as its setting stretches over more than half a century, and the author does try to make the book more palatable by separating it into sections, I nonetheless feel it’s too lengthy, as I became progressively more fatigued by the book’s length and Eileen’s repetitive existence. Overall, a great, well-written book, but one that I struggled to persevere with.

I would recommend this book to people who are interested in familial relationships, and a ‘real’ love story, not a romantic fantasy. It’s good for people who don’t mind a long, slow-paced book, one that doesn’t seem rewarding of uplifting until the end.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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Harper Lee’s New Book: Go Set A Watchman

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Legal Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird is an outstanding book. Exquisitely written, it is a book that saddens and yet heartens concurrently, leaving a warm, contented feeling, despite its less-than-happy ending for underdog Tom Robinson. However, the book’s uplifting effect on the reader comes at the expense of its realism: it touches on, yet mostly leaves unresolved, the issue of racism.

Go Set a Watchman, conversely, attempts to tackle racism; to explain it. Set 20 years after To Kill a MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman is again narrated by Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, at the age of twenty-six. She’s returning home from New York to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set amidst the civil rights movement and the political unrest transpiring in the South, Jean Louise’s routine visit becomes regrettable when she learns jarring realities about her family, the town and the people she loves. Scout continues her narrative – written before, yet set after Mockingbird – resolute in her sense of right and wrong. She discovers to her horror that her father – until then revered as her beacon of morality – holds the same bigoted views that he had seemed to castigate. As Jean Louise loses grasp of her values, and assumed truths, she looks to her past for signs of what she had been blind to all along: that her father was not the ‘perfect’ person she thought he was.

Despite its mixed reviews and reactions, I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman. It’s a well-needed ‘wake-up call’ from the dream-like, simplistic world of To Kill a Mockingbird; Scout matures, and Watchman is the grown-up, ‘real’ story. It is said that much of To Kill a Mockingbird is a product of Lee’s editor, who knew that a more fantastical book based on the same story would sell better than a more ‘realistic’ one: perhaps he realised that people like reading something that makes them feel better about themselves. Who can say if this rumour is true, but I do think that the books seem completely different: Watchman is less a sequel, and more an elaboration on Mockingbird.

As the book progresses, Jean Louise’s disturbed and confused reaction to the news that her family is, in some ways, just like every other in Maycomb (their town), is an empathetic coming-of-age disillusionment with the world; disenchantment with childhood role models that many readers – myself included – could remember themselves feeling, despite different circumstances. Go Set a Watchman tries to make sense, to portray the experience of living in a small town in the South; it explains how hard it was to speak up, and stand up for what they think is right. Without excusing their guilt or sense of wrongdoing, it explores the intent behind their actions: it is natural to oppose political change. The book offers a comprehensible perspective of the South.

Watchman failed to explain conclusively the South’s opposition to the Civil Rights Movement – but perhaps this was intended: there is no simple, ‘correct’ answer; rather, one can only presume their mind-sets. This is a great book that offers context, depth and nuance to a beloved classic.

I commend this book to all, but particularly if you have read To Kill a Mockingbird. You would enjoy both of these books if you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement in America, from the viewpoint of a liberal, white Southern young woman. It’s a little slow-paced, because of all the flashbacks, but hardly hard to read. In fact, it’s incredibly readable, especially for the sequel to a classic.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

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The Other Typist – By Suzanne Rindell

Historical Fiction

The Other Typist is recounted by Rose Baker, a typist at a rundown police precinct. Plain and rule-abiding, Rose efficiently types up criminals’ confessions before returning home to her dreary boarding house. All at once, Rose’s regimented practicality is seduced by the glamour and frivolity of the new typist at the precinct, Odalie. A disturbing obsession is born; Rose keeps a journal of the tiniest details she notices about her. One of her entries reads: “O prefers tea to coffee. Earl Grey, with a little milk. Drinks it with her finger curled” Some are darker and teem with envy: “O took Iris to lunch today! Over me. Old, expressionless Iris, with her mannish little neckties… Clearly I have overestimated O. She and Iris can have each other.” Midway through The Other Typist, it is revealed that Rose is narrating from an asylum in retrospect, suggesting that perhaps Rose’s word is not reliable. This extra layer to the plot provides much suspicion and tension, as Rose is essentially lying to herself, as well as to the reader.

The Other Typist forces the reader to reflect on human nature and relationships. Odalie manipulates Rose relentlessly, leaving Rose entirely unaware until the end. Because the writer lies to herself and therefore the reader throughout the book, the reader is only given a distorted view of the story, adding interest to the already intriguing plot. Rose deludedly thinks herself perceptive and all-seeing, yet she is blind to the reality that Odalie was manipulating her right in front of her eyes. Being written in retrospect means that often, Odalie hints at her doomed future, e.g. “It was moments like this, I would later learn, that would ultimately undo me.” Although this might have added charm, I found that this spoiled the suspense of the book.

You would enjoy The Other Typist if you like The Great Gatsby, and like mysterious and stylistic 1920s novels. This book is not good for people who like fast-paced novels. I would recommend this book for teens and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow