Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Epic (page 1 of 3)

Watership Down – Richard Adams

I’d heard a lot of pop-culture references to Watership Down, but before I read it I didn’t know anything really about it (except that it was about bunnies…? maybe?). Turns out it’s a 1972 children’s adventure novel by English author Richard Adams, based on a meandering story he made up to entertain his daughters during a long road trip.

Watership Down - Richard Adams - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(His daughters told him it was so good, he should write it down, so he did… only to have it rejected by several publishers on the grounds that it was “too grown up for children”. So, I guess the Adams clan have mature tastes?)

The story is set in the Berkshire and Hampshire countryside, near where Adams and his family lived. As I suspected, it revolves around a group of anthropomorphised rabbits from the Sandleford warren. The inciting incident comes quickly, when a small weirdo rabbit named Fiver has a “frightening vision” of the warren’s imminent destruction.

He convinces his best mate, Hazel, to help him round up as many of their rabbit friends as possible and escape before the Bad Thing comes (he doesn’t know what it is, just that it’s Bad). Most of the rabbits tell them to bugger off, understandably, but a handful of them agree to follow Hazel and Fiver into the great unknown.

The plot device of a psychic rabbit was really quite baffling, but I tried to just go with it – and good thing, too, because most of the action throughout Watership Down relies on Fiver sensing trouble. Other than that, Adams does a pretty convincing job of depicting the lives of rabbits. He even invents language, culture, and mythology for them, so it’s thoroughly believable… again, aside from the preternatural foresight thing.

Anyway, Hazel and Fiver and co. repeatedly escape predators by the skin of their teeth. Sometimes, they befriend them (like the large seagull who later returns to help them fight off other Evil rabbits). They join – and then escape – a warren where rabbits are being bred for food. They build their own warren on Watership Down (yes, it’s the name of a place, rather than a plot point about a sinking vessel), but soon have to face up to the existential crisis of an absence of does (female rabbits). They manage to collect a couple from a nearby farm, but not enough to stave off their colony’s collapse.

So, their big final battle – the long-awaited climax of Watership Down – sees them infiltrate the Efrafra warren, ruled by the tyrannical despot General Woundwort. They manage to smuggle out enough does for requisite babymaking (like rabbits, etc), but the General is not easily defeated.

I’m not sure if I read it “right”, but Watership Down seemed to me like an indictment of anthropogenic climate change and the exploitative agricultural practices of capitalism, cloaked in a children’s story with a few made up words (the language of “lapine”, as invented by Adams). Others have read all kinds of stuff into it, too; it could be an allegory for class struggle, the Cold War, fascism, extremism… basically, Hazel and Fiver and co. are an oppressed minority who just want to LIVE, dammit, and they’ll fight to the death against the forces that would stop them doing so.

Adams, though, insists that it was never his intention to mirror such grown-up realities in his children’s book. He intended Watership Down to be “only a made-up story … in no sense an allegory or parable or any kind of political myth. I simply wrote down a story I told to my little girls,” he told the BBC in 2007. Still, whatever he meant by it, it clearly has motifs and themes that work on multiple levels.

It seemed unnecessarily long, though, particularly toward the end. It all just got a bit formulaic: just as you think the rabbits are safe and happy, a new danger arises that looks set to doom them, only they overcome it by working together and appreciating each other’s strengths. As an armchair editor, I would’ve suggested splitting the story in two, and made the whole Efrafra business a sequel (or, at least, a second volume – Watership Down 2: Back In The Warren).

As it stands, the popularity of this children’s book about bunnies persists, fifty years after its release. It’s won a bunch of awards (including the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Prize), and it’s been adapted for film and television multiple times (including a 2018 Netflix series). I’m glad to have read it, so I can finally “get” all those pop culture references, but I doubt I’ll be revisiting it – even if there was a kid around to read it to, I doubt I could get them to sit still for long enough.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Watership Down:

  • “Uhh it was good uhh hmm which should I say uuh genralwoundfart or whatever the &)@?@! His name is loo” – nickie
  • “I believe that some time ago, some kid read this, and then began replacing the rabbits for zombies, thus, the walking dead was born.” – Mauricio Cerna
  • “Beautiful writing and boring story!” – N. Lassiter
  • “I did not enjoy Watership Down. It hink that it was pointless to write a 400+ page long book about bunnies having problems.” – N:) *

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Jeffrey Eugenides tends more towards writing short fiction than he does full-length novels… but damn, when he turns it on, he really turns it on. Middlesex is his 2002 novel inspired by the 19th-century diary of a French convent student who was intersex. He worked for nine years, writing and re-writing, until he managed to weave together a story that was both epic and introspective.

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Middlesex begins with Cal, aged 41, looking back on “this rollercoaster ride of a gene through time”. Ostensibly styled as Cal’s memoir, the first half-or-so of the book is more of a family saga, the internal logic being that tracing the Stephanides family tree is essential to understanding the unique circumstances and coincidences that gave rise to Cal’s genetic 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.

See, Middlesex is a gender novel: Cal is intersex. They were assigned-female-at-birth (AFAB, in today’s parlance), due to their ambiguous-appearing genitals and the negligence of the family doctor’s examination. As such, they were raised as a girl. However, they have testes, and their secondary sex characteristics that emerge during puberty are typically male.

That’s the big ticket item, the reason most people come to Middlesex – but it’s a shame, because there’s a lot more to this story than Cal’s gender identity.

To take it all the way back to the beginning (as Cal does): their grandparents were, ahem, cut from the same branch of the family tree. Yes, they were brother and sister before they were husband and wife, before Game Of Thrones made it cool. They were displaced during the early 20th century conflict between Greeks and Turks, and managed – by the skin of their teeth – to emigrate to the United States. So, it’s an immigrant story, about ethnic identity and the American Dream, as much as it’s anything else.

The family saga is like Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets The Slap-era Christos Tsiolkas. Eugenides, through Cal, paints an incredibly detailed portrait of three generations (from conception to death) against the backdrop of major historical events, including the 1967 Detroit Riot and Watergate. Of course, this requires some funky twists and turns in Cal’s narration. Eugenides allows his protagonist unrealistic insight into other characters’ thoughts, a kind of omniscient-first-person at times, but somehow he makes it flow very naturally (think Melville’s narration by Ishmael in Moby Dick).

And, an important side note: in addition to being preternaturally insightful, Cal is FUNNY. Like, no one calls Middlesex a comedy, but I literally lol’d several times. It’s not all doom and gloom!

I suppose I can’t ignore the sex and gender themes of Middlesex forever. So, deep breath, here we go…

First off, no, Eugenides is not intersex himself. He drew a lot of details for Middlesex (particularly around Greek American families and geography) from his real life, but not the gender bit. As he explains it:

Because the story is so far from my own experience, I had to use a lot of details from my own life to ground it in reality, to make it believable for me and then hopefully for the reader, as well. So I would use my own physical appearance. I would use details from my grandparents’ life, the streets they lived on, the kinds of places they lived. And all this made it real for me because it was a tall order to write such a story.

Jeffrey Eugenides (On Middlesex)

Of course, adopting the voice of an intersex character for a novel is a controversial choice by today’s standards, but at least Eugenides took it seriously. It wasn’t a gimmick to sell books: Cal’s voice and identity are central to the story. Eugenides spent years researching intersex biology and politics. Learning about 5-alpha-reductase deficiency actually changed the shape and scope of the story (initially, Eugenides had envisaged Middlesex as a short fictional autobiography, but learning that this condition primarily arises in isolated inbred populations led him to explore the epic history of Cal’s family).

Also controversial is the language Cal (slash Eugenides) uses throughout the novel. By the end, Cal explicitly rejects the essentialism underlying “traditional” definitions of sex and gender – Cal is neither “really” a boy, nor “really” a girl, regardless of clothing or the assumptions of others – but Eugenides uses he/him pronouns to describe the character. I’ve chosen not to in this review, because it simply didn’t feel accurate or natural based on the days I’ve spent with Cal while reading Middlesex. I suspect, if the novel were written and published today, they would be using gender neutral pronouns.

Then, there’s the language Cal uses to describe their identity. They shift between using “intersex” (when talking in the abstract, regarding activism and so forth) and the now-objectionable “hermaphrodite”. Eugenides has been asked directly why he used this term, and I thought his justification was pretty sound: it’s used by Cal in the context of their identification and engagement with Hermaphroditus, among other characters of Greek mythology and history. “When speaking about real people, I should—and I do my best to—use the term ‘intersex’,” he said. He also pointed to the journal Hermaphrodites With Attitude (published by the Intersex Society of North America) as an example of the reclaiming of the word by intersex people, akin to the reclaiming of the word “queer”.

Nevertheless, even though the language is a bit outdated (twenty years is a long time in LGBTIQ+ politics and science!), there’s a ring of authenticity in Eugenides’ portrayal, and a sensibility that I think transcends nomenclature. He has been largely praised by queer and intersex reviewers for his sensitive and insightful depiction of an intersex character, which is more than most cis-het men could ever hope for. The exception would be the handful of reviewers and scholars who have criticised Eugenides for supposedly “erasing lesbian identities” (as Cal only openly explores their attraction to women once they begin presenting as a man). I think that’s a bit rich, to be honest; Middlesex is already a huge sweeping epic, and adding an extra hundred pages for Cal to explore lesbianism would have felt like inauthentic overkill.

But I circle back to my original point: Middlesex is much more than a gender novel. Adam Begley described it as “a hybrid form, epic crossed with history, romance, comedy, tragedy” in his review for the New York Observer, and that’s spot on. It’s a big book, in length, depth, and breadth, and yet it’s compelling and thoroughly readable. If you’ve held off reading Middlesex, feeling skeptical or intimidated, you really shouldn’t wait any longer.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Middlesex:

  • “When the incestuous couple really started tucking into each other, I finally googled the author’s motivation in having incest as a major plot element, and it turns out he threw that in there just because he needed to explain the main character’s intersex condition. Ugh. C’mon Eugenides. There are a lot of other ways you could have peeled that banana.” – Julia
  • “This is a horrible and dull book. Rotten in every way. It starts with a really stupid and misleading line. “I was born on an incredibly smogless day in Detroit”. There is NEVER any smog in Detroit. The rest of the book is just as bad. There should be a stack of these books about 1/2 of a mile high for the author to jump off of.” – Michael
  • “Seriously? Incest stories about the protagonist’s grandmother is what makes good reading these days? No thanks.” – maranda green harris

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

Last year, a little book called Piranesi bowled me over and won my heart. I felt compelled to seek out author Susanna Clarke’s only other novel, a comparatively hefty tome (four times the length, 1000+ pages!) published 16 years prior. Clarke started work on Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell back in 1992, and worked on it for ten full years before submitting it for publication. So, as I’m sure you can tell already, this book is an undertaking. Just finishing it feels like a triumph! I can only provide a potted summary, though, less this review become almost as long as the book…

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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(And by the way, there are some gorgeous illustrations in my edition, contributed by Portia Rosenberg – I highly recommend seeking out a copy that includes them!)

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is an alternative history, set in early 19th century England (think Napoleonic war era). As Clarke tells it, magic once ran rife through the British Isles, but has since disappeared entirely… only to suddenly return to two particular men, Jonathan Strange and (you guessed it!) Mr Norrell.

These two are a magical Odd Couple. Jonathan Strange is young, adventurous, and impulsive. Mr Norrell is a cantankerous bookworm, a fusspot of the highest order.

Clarke’s mastery of storytelling is on display right from the get-go. The first chapter of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is exquisitely crafted: word built, exposition clear (but not patronising to the reader), and the hook baited. You can’t help but dive in! The Learned Society of York’s “theoretical magicians” (i.e., old white men who study the history of magic, even though they can’t perform it) is stunned to learn that Mr Norrell – curator of the world’s largest personal library of magic books and books about magic (they’re different) – can actually perform it. Norrell compels them to disband their silly gabfest club, and goes about quietly studying and practicing magic all on his own.

Strange, on the other hand, decides on a whim to simply Be A Magician. He doesn’t know jack about magic or its history, but when has that ever stopped a rich white guy? He travels to meet Norrell (who is now living in London), and blags his way into becoming his student. The two clash – frequently, and how – over the proper conduct of magic, the importance of the legendary Raven King, the employ of fairies, and just about everything else. They battle along for a while, learning from each other and trying not to kill each other, until the conflict becomes too much and they part ways.

Jonathan Strange heads off abroad to help out the troops by magicking up roads and favourable weather conditions, completely on the fly (in fact, heads up, the Napoleonic wars play a much bigger role in the narrative than you might expect), while Norrell stays in London and publishes a lot of stuffy books and papers about the Proper application of English magic. Astoundingly, people actually want to read them, and England ends up divided into “Norrellites” and “Strangites”.

Reminder: I’m skipping over a LOT. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is over a thousand pages long. A LOT happens. The pacing fluctuates throughout. Sometimes, it was so compelling I felt like I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. Sometimes, it dragged so much that I wondered whether I would ever finish it. That said, I attribute the latter feelings to my own impatience (after everything that 2021 has thrown at my brain), rather than any fault in Clarke’s storytelling.

We get Norrell’s side of the story in the first volume, Jonathan Strange’s in the second, and the third ties it all together with a focus on the Raven King. Jonathan Strange becomes involved in increasingly dark and dangerous experiments, to try and counteract some of the personal tragedies that have befallen him, and Norrell gets a few boots up the bum to remind him to get his nose out of a book every once in a while. Most importantly, the true nature of the book’s villain is revealed, one of the greatest mysteries I’ve ever encountered in contemporary literature: The Man With The Thistle-Down Hair.

Clarke offers a Tolkien-esque level of detail in her speculative history (though she’s far less dull in the telling of it). In fact, she once said that she re-read Lord Of The Rings when she first had the idea for Jonathan Strange And Mr Norell, so the parallel seems natural. She pulls from every literary tradition you can imagine without becoming overwhelmed: the Gothic novel, the comedy of manners, the fantastic, the dramatic… She even gets her David Foster Wallace on and includes 200+ footnotes, each offering some gem of insight into her magical world.

What really sets it apart, though, is the wry humour. It’s like a blend of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, with a contemporary comic sensibility. By way of example:

It has been remarked (by a lady infinitely cleverer than the present author) how kindly disposed the world in general feels to young people who either die or marry. Imagine then the interest that surrounded Miss Wintertowne! No young lady ever had such advantages before: for she died upon the Tuesday, was raised to life in the early hours of Wednesday morning, and was married upon the Thursday; which some people thought too much excitement for one week.

Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell

Naturally, given the book’s length and breadth, it’s a book about many things. It’s a scathing critique of bureaucracy, for one. It’s a book about “Englishness”, and the divide between North and South. It’s about the thin line that separates madness and reason. It’s about the “silencing” of underrepresented groups, and the capacity for social change.

That said, Clarke doesn’t rely on the sheer volume of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell to invoke all of this. It just so happened that this particular story had such a level of detail and traversed such a world that it required a lot of pages to tell. This isn’t one of those books where you can point to a hundred pages here, or a hundred pages there, and say: “oh, she didn’t really need that, you can skim it or skip it”.

Prior to the publication of Piranesi, Clarke had mentioned in a couple of interviews that she started work on a sequel, focusing on a few of the minor characters. It would seem that progress has stalled (even halted), due to her experience of chronic fatigue syndrome. Her illness, she says, has made the effort to research and write a comparable book is “insurmountable”. I, for one, don’t need a sequel and would rather she save her energy for other endeavours. Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell is a remarkable book, one that says everything it needs to (though it would undoubtedly take many readings to truly hear it all).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Jonathan Strange And Mr Norrell:

  • “To all the Jane Austen fans out there, I advise you to avoid this book as assiduously as you would avoid the society of Mr. Collins.” – 24karats
  • “Boring. Goes nowhere. And takes you forever to get there.” – Jake B.
  • “Normally, I wouldn’t bother to review a book I hadn’t finished, but thought that, for someone reading through these reviews before purchasing the book, I will gladly mail you my copy. Hell, I will even pay the postage if it means getting rid of it. I tried putting it out with my recyclables, but they said they don’t take human waste material.” – S. OLEARY

Mythos – Stephen Fry

Unlike the Fry & Laurie and Jeeves and Wooster fans out there, I’m most familiar with Stephen Fry from his work on BBC panel quiz show QI. I’ve heard he’s quite a good writer, as well as a rather intelligent bloke, but instead of picking up one of his autobiographical works I decided to start with Mythos, his “vivid retelling” of some of the major Greek myths. Apparently Fry has a lifelong passion for the subject; he says in the Foreword that it all began with a copy of Tales from Ancient Greece that he had as a child.

Mythos - Stephen Fry - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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I’m about as far from a Greek myths tragic as you could imagine – I haven’t even read Circe. I brought to Mythos only what I’d absorbed through assorted and infrequent pop-culture references. Fry seems to have foreseen readers like me, and reassures us: “You don’t need to know anything to read this book… certainly no ‘classical education’ is called for,” (page vii).

He also acknowledges other cultures and sources of mythology, but says that he focuses on the Greek “because it has survived with a detail, richness, life and colour that distinguish it from other mythologies” (page viii). He derives the myths he’s chosen to retell from a few key sources (Hesiod’s Theogony, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass), and he acknowledges those, too. The only thing he fails to mention until the very end is his cut-and-pasting: these myths are so intricately woven, they defy our conventional storytelling beats, so Fry has had to arrange them into a timeline of sorts for coherence’s sake.

“As if such a consistent and stable a device as a timeline could ever be used to delineate the complex, kaleidoscopic and disorderly unfolding of Greek myth… I have, of course, had to play about with timelines in order to attempt a coherent narrative.”

Mythos (page 401-2)

All of the maps and family trees in the front evoke Game Of Thrones-esque fantasy, and that theme continues throughout. From the beginning, there’s a lot of fighting and fucking, a lot of incest and polyamory and MLM. A lot of names are thrown at you very quickly, but Fry helpfully highlights the ones that are particularly important and gives you explicit permission to forget the ones that aren’t.

Hera was my favourite of the gods and goddesses in Mythos, unafraid to inflict her wrath on her “all powerful” husband (Zeus, King of Gods, et cetera) for his philandering and general ridiculousness. I also took a particular shining to Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. I was disappointed, however, to find no reference to a god of booklovers (though, I suppose they didn’t really have books, so I suppose that’s forgivable).

Fry offers a lot of linguistic insight (clearly another pet subject of his). It turns out the Greek gods are where we get all kinds of words (chronology, atlas, narcissism), and even imagery like that we associate with the Grim Reaper. The footnotes throughout are particularly illuminating, fleshing out a lot of the myths’ relevance to each other and to today’s world – so don’t sleep on them!

But don’t think that Fry lets his intimidating intellect overwhelm the stories of Mythos. He keeps the language colloquial, the banter humourous, and goes to great pains to emphasise the contemporary resonance of the Greek myths. He makes the gods tangible and relatable to us in the 21st century (e.g., Cadmus and Harmonia as the “iconic power couple”), which makes Mythos an infinitely more entertaining read than some of the other re-tellings you may have encountered. He certainly made the stories as interesting as they could possibly be to a reader like me, who otherwise wouldn’t have taken much notice.

I’ve heard endless (glowing!) recommendations for the Mythos audiobook (Fry is a talented and popular voice narrator, and he reads this one himself), but unfortunately it’s not available through my library’s app. Still, I’d be keen to give it a listen if I get the chance, and I’d be willing to hazard a recommendation to you, too, if that’s your preferred format.

All told, Mythos is a fun and fact-filled read. It might be more of a beginner’s guide version of Greek mythology, but I reckon even the more passionate Greek myth readers could read it just for fun.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Mythos:

  • “Atheists shouldn’t write books about myths – they generally tend to think the people “invented” them. They didn’t – myths are evocations of inwardly experienced interactions with, for lack of a better term, higher worlds. That’s why they have such staying power. I found Fry’s Mythos snarky and unpleasant – like sitting through a burlesque show during Easter Mass. The Greeks deserve better.” – P Jerome
  • “It’s quarantine and everything sucks. This is the only thing I like. Thank god for Stephen Fry and thank god for greek mythology.” – Babrams
  • “It was interesting, but alittle boring.” – thalia becak
  • “It was a gift, which has not yet been red, but my adult son expressed enthusiasm.” – Wendikins

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Normally, when you set about tackling an 800+ page epic study of humanity, trauma, and relationships, you’re talking about one of the classics, a book written back in the day before publishers cared about “readability”. Not so with A Little Life: I have no idea how this book made it through the vetting process, but here we are. This 2015 novel by Hanya Yanagihara became a best-seller, despite its length and… shall we say, challenging content.

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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A Little Life begins with four graduates who have moved to New York. There’s Willem (the kind, handsome one), JB (the quick-witted, artistic one), Malcom (the frustrated, upwardly-mobile one), and Jude (the brilliant, enigmatic one). They all exist on a wide spectrum of identities (racial, sexual, familial, and otherwise), a pleasingly diverse crew with deep and abiding love for one another, even as life scatters them across different courses. One of the really interesting aspects of this book – which you might not realise until much later – is that it’s not anchored in any particular time period. It’s just vaguely contemporary, with no reference to September 11 or any other cultural landmarks that would anchor it in our minds, giving it a timeless quality right from the outset.

For the first fifty or so pages (a drop in the bucket of this epic), they all go to parties, move apartments, hook up, squabble, gossip, all as you’d expect. There are all the usual schisms that threaten friendships – money, politics, miscommunication – but also a deep respect that seems capable of withstanding it all. The story focuses largely on JB, Malcolm, and Willem; Jude’s story is only partly revealed, as background. He exists on the periphery, of the friendship and the narrative. Then, so gradually you might not notice at first, the story of A Little Life morphs into something different, something more than your bog-standard New York bildungsroman.

The friendship ensemble slowly recedes, leaving Jude in the spotlight. Yanagihara drip-feeds his back story to the reader – how he was found abandoned as an infant, near a garbage can, adopted by monks who mistreat him in horrifying ways, only to jump from the frying pan into the fire, and so forth. The story of Jude’s present is chronological, and his past is revealed through seamlessly chronological flashbacks too, making for smooth parallel narratives.

I’ll stop beating around the bush, because if you’ve not read A Little Life and you’re reading this review to work out whether or not to pick it up, you need to know: Jude was sexually abused, repeatedly, in all manner of ways, from a very young age. A Little Life is the story of how this trauma reverberates throughout his life. There’s graphic detail – a lot of it – and very little, if any, justice or redemption.

A Little Life is an UNDERTAKING. It’s not slow moving, by any means, but it is LONG. You need to be ready to really immerse yourself in the lives and relationships of these characters, including Jude’s (though he has it the worst, the others’ aren’t a picnic, either). Yanagihara seems determined to make the reader work for it. She reveals things by surprise, mentions facets of the back-story in passing that cast all-new light on everything that has come before – that’s why A Little Life is NOT skimmable, despite its imposing length. If you let your eyes skip down half a page, you’re liable to miss something crucial and you’ll be forced to circle back, re-live it all over again (the way that Jude has to).

It took me an embarrassingly long time to work out why A Little Life felt so much more overwhelming and devastating than other books I’ve read (and I’ve read some real downers). It’s the damn MAGNITUDE of the thing. It’s both incredibly long and incredibly intimate, which means its punches land much harder. The content isn’t necessarily more traumatic or triggering than you’d find in other books, but there’s SO MUCH of it, and it requires such a HUGE investment on the part of the reader…

Reading A Little Life actually forced me to confront a really uncomfortable question: at what point does literature become tragedy porn? The Sisyphean nature of Jude’s traumas – he comes so close to contentment, time and again, only for the boulder to roll back down the hill and absolutely crush him – gave me pause. Every time he reaches out, makes any headway at all in reckoning with his past, it manifests in another cycle of abuse. Yanagihara renders it in such a way that it is never titillating or sensationalist; this isn’t schlocky horror or crime fiction, and yet… the sheer magnitude of the protagonist’s suffering is enough to make bile rise in the back of your throat. The only thing that makes it bearable is the intervening chapters where she portrays Jude’s life as a successful corporate lawyer, with fulfilling friendships and a found family worth their weight in gold.

You need to know there are no happy endings here. In an article for New York Magazine, Yanagihara said that she wanted to “create a protagonist who never got better”. His relationships with his friends and his adoptive father evolve, but they never “heal” him. Anyone who recommends this book to you without a major trigger warning is a psychopath and a bum, and you should cut them out of your life ASAP. Any time anyone brings up the “debate” about whether and why trigger warnings should be used, A Little Life is the book that proves the affirmative.

One more important thing to note (just a sec, let me drag out my soap box): I’m once again calling your attention to the fact that if the central characters of this novel had been women, rather than men, A Little Life would have been relegated to the category of “women’s fiction” and probably published with a flower on the front cover or some shit (if it were published at all). As it stands, the relationships between these men, and their emotional lives over the course of decades, are the soul of this story. It is, thus, lauded as epic literary fiction. I’m just saying.

Let’s not end on a bum note. Yay for Yanagihara, who shot to international literary stardom with this novel. It was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2015, and later ranked in The Guardian’s list of the 100 best books of the 21st century. I’m not sure what she’s written lately, but – as good as A Little Life was – I’m not sure I’m all that eager to find out. I need to lick the wounds this novel inflicted for a bit, before I go begging for more.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Little Life:

  • “Masterpiece, but stay away from it, it will make you cry like the time your first dog died, be warned.” – Sharon
  • “great book if you want to torture yourself. i loved every second.” – Victoria A.
  • “Had to seek out and read every single one-star review as an antidote to the damage caused by this book. No, not complaining about the darkness and pain, but how painfully bad and ill-conceived it is. Never knew a book could make you annoyed to the extent of losing sleep. The one-star reviews restored for me a sense of normalcy, humanity, reason, and general good taste.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I cringe every time this book pops up in my book searches. I haven’t read this book nor do I know anything about it except that the cover is hideous and makes me want to punch my Kindle each time I have to look at it.” – Kindle Customer
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