Unbearable and uplifting: The illogical pleasure of reading A Little Life By Hanya Yanagihara

hanya-yanagihara-a-little-lifeIt must say something about the impact Hanya Yanagihara’s novel “A Little Life” has on its readers, that random strangers came up to me, while I was reading it, to offer their praise.

“You should persevere with it, it’s an amazing book,” said one bloke as he got off the train, when I was only about fifty pages in.

Then, a few weeks later: “It’s so good. I’ve only got 20 minutes left to read on my Kindle and I don’t want it to end,” enthused a mother with two children as our train pulled into Melbourne.

After finishing it myself, and being equally affected by its power, I perused the internet for reviews and comments.

Quickly I realised  those random strangers and I were not alone.

Almost anyone who has read Yanagihara’s 720 page epic, about four close male friends – one of whom is a survivor of horrific sexual abuse – making their way in  New York after college has been similarly jolted.

Jon Michaud’s review in the New Yorker gave a succinct summary of its principal effect: “Yanagihara’s novel can drive you mad, consume you and take over your life.”

“I will genuinely never recover from reading A Little Life,” wrote another fan on Twitter.

When I finished reading A Little Life, I felt that sense of nostalgia, sadness and loss that comes with experiencing all great works of art be it a book, movie or piece of music.

I was as if I had been taken on an exhilarating ride – one of pain and suffering, but also of great joy and love – and then it had all come to an end and the characters had exited the stage, leave me and my world view irrevocably altered.

To summarise briefly the plot , four close college friends Jude St Francis, JB, Willem and Malcolm find themselves living in New York and trying to make their way as lawyer, artist, actor and architect respectively. All are bright and brilliant in their own way.

The book chronicles their steps up the professional ladder, the shifting dynamics of their friendship, their on and off romantic relationships, their shifting social circles and the changes they undergo from unsure twenty something’s to fifty-year-old successful men. All set against the backdrop of a modern, but timeless New York.

While this may hardly sound like the plot for a the “Great American Novel” what sets the book apart is Yanagihara’s ability to get inside the head of someone who has survived appalling sexual abuse in their childhood and how they learn to cope with its scars as adults.

This she does through the devastating brilliant character of Jude St Francis, whose childhood as an orphan raised by monks is so unimaginable cruel and painful that it is something of a miracle he survived at all.

Not only that but Jude suffers from a chronic pain and debilitating back spasms – due to an automobile attack he endured aged 15 – that leave him writhing on the floor in agony.

But he has learnt to cope, both with the sense of shame he feels about the past, the memories of these events which haunt him and his pain. This coping mechanism is to cut himself with razors, behaviour which shocks his friends and family, but which he is unable to stop even as he runs out of space on his arms, and finds himself cutting through “tough, webby scar tissue”.

Despite his tragic upbringing (which Yanagihara reveals in long flashbacks) Jude does more than just survive, he becomes a success.

Blessed with a brilliant legal and mathematical mind, he ends up becoming a top litigator at a major Manhattan corporate law firm even as his physical pain worsens and the mental scars refuse to heal. 

Whilst those closest to him – his best friend and later lover Willem and his adopted parents Harold and Julia – try to heal his deep emotional wounds, and his faithful doctor Andy, treats his weeping sores, failing legs and other bodily injuries, it is only Jude himself  who can keep the demons and ghosts of his past a bay, or give in and let them consume him.

And this almost biblical journey of Jude’s-  into and out of the light – is what drives the narrative of Yanagihara’s opus, and gives it is remarkable power.

Ultimately, the message of Yanagihara’s devastating book, I think, is our inability to escape the events that shaped us as children, but also that we can as adults transcend those events, even if those moments remain fleeting.

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Suburban secrets: why men should read Liane Moriarty too

big-lies-little-liesI suppose I consider myself something of a pioneer for reading two novels – Big Little Lies and The Husband’s Secret – by the best-selling Australian writer Liane Moriarty.

Expecting chic-lit drivel, I found them surprisingly engrossing, entertaining and thought-provoking as they delved into dark secrets and lies in modern-day Australian suburbia.

The nearest book I could think by way of comparison was Chris Tsiolkas’s celebrated novel The Slap, with a central plot revolving around a suburban Sydney barbecue where someone slaps another person’s misbehaving child and the ramifications and ripples that flow out as a result.

Moriarty delves into similar territory, but is in my mind the better of the two writers. She’s a more expert crafter of believable characters and more revealing of the psychological landscape of  life in the suburbs.

Both of Liane Moriarty’s books were passed on to me by my wife with recommendations from my mother-in-law and sister-in-law. All three raved about them and encouraged me to broaden my reading habits beyond the  serious-minded Booker Prize winning stuff I tend to get lost in.

Also spurring me on was Liane Moriarty’s inclusion in the Australian Financial Review‘s (the newspaper I write for) Cultural Power List alongside the more well-known provocateurs like broadcaster and journalist Waleed Aly and football great and aboriginal activist Adam Goodes.

The Power List judges noted that Moriarty has sold a staggering six million books and has become a Hollywood player with HBO turning Big Little Lies into a mini-series starring Reece Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman.

Big Little Lies begins with a murder at a High School parents social night at Pirriwee Primary, a fictional coastal town near Sydney.

We don’t know who has died or who the killer is. We only know the suspects  – a motley crew of kindergarten parents – which Moriarty introduces us to as she traces the events over the proceeding months that led up to the fateful night.

Here we meet inspiring women like Jane, a battling  24-year-old single mother, who must defend her son Ziggy from accusations he is a kindergarten bully. There’s also the gorgeous trophy wife Celeste, sickenly abused by her ultra-wealthy husband and Madeline, the do-good mother on her second marriage, struggling to maintain a relationship with her strong-willed, idealistic daughter.

husbands-secretThe Husband’s Secret  is a modern-day take on the fable of Pandora and her box. A much darker book, it explores how the lives of three young woman are impacted by the murder a young girl that happened 30 years ago and a letter – found by accident – that reveals a terrible truth.

Here we find Cecilia, the Tupperware selling super-mom whose idyllic suburban life (a bevy of bright and healthy kids, nice house and loving husband) is about to crumble; Rachel Crowley, the still-grieving mother of the murder victim, her daughter Janie, who becomes convinced she has identified her daughter’s killer; and advertising exec Tess, whose husband has just confessed to being in love with her cousin and best friend.

Moriarty creates these intricate little suburban universes set against the familiar backdrop of school playgrounds, teacher-parent meetings and breakfasts in sunlit kitchens populated by characters straight out of our own everyday lives, who must, with great bravery, deal with unexpected events that threaten to destroy their domestic idyll.

As Nicola Wakefield Evans, one of the Power List judges put it: “[Liane Moriarty] talks about everyday life and marries it to a theme that we’re all grappling with – same-sex marriage, multiple-parented children, domestic violence. And she’s a beautiful writer.”

As a man, I think reading these books can only add to the often blinkered macho Australian male view of the world, which still casts women in the role of submissive or victim or emotional weakling. It’s also offers great insights into how women see men.

For women dealing with similar difficult situations as characters in the book, be they single parents, abused partners or just someone who does not understand their husband or their kids, I imagine these books provide a great deal of comfort and validation, perhaps even ways to cope and move forward.

In an interview she gave the Guardian in 2014, Moriarty (who recently turned 50 and has two kids) explained how she drew inspiration from real life stories told to her from other writers and friends. She also revealed herself as someone who has thought deeply about the issues in her books:

“Often I think bullying –especially in its adult, verbal forms – is the sort of thing you don’t realize till the end of the day, and it’s a horrible feeling to realize something wasn’t just a bland statement, but was actually cruel. But then we’re all capable of things that are breathtakingly cruel,” she told the website.

In her fiction, Moriarty has tapped right into the psychology of suburban life: how men and women view each other, how we bury big and small secrets from each other, how we think about our children and other people’s children, how we cling to the past or try to shake it off and how we can sometimes find ways to make peace and move on.