Day 1161: A Little Life

Cover for A Little LifeBest of Five!
For me, anyway, it often happens that a novel gets a lot of hype, with reviewers raving about it, and when I finally read it, it is unable to live up to its reputation. Such is not the case, however, with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I found it to be thoroughly absorbing, all 800+ pages of it.

It begins with four young men who all roomed together in college—Willem, Jude, J.B., and Malcolm. The novel, which covers roughly thirty years, begins when they are all struggling to make their way in New York City. Willem and Jude still share a tiny apartment while Willem works as a waiter and auditions for acting parts, and Jude works as a lawyer for the district attorney’s office. Malcolm is poorly paid and given boring work in the office of a prestigious architectural firm, and J.B. is working on his art.

In at first a very subtle way, though, the novel centers around Jude. For some time, Jude remains a mysterious presence in the novel. He was severely injured when he was young, but he never speaks of that incident or any other in his past. But Jude’s life, we eventually find, is ruled by his past, during which he was repeatedly abused.

Since college, Jude believes that he has been pretending to be a different person than he is, and that if his friends found out who he really is, they would leave him. He is full of self-hatred.

This novel is extremely powerful and deals with some heavy issues. But it is beautifully and empathetically written. It makes us love some of the characters, and the others seem fully realized. I may not have read it if it hadn’t been on my Booker Prize project list, but I’m glad I did.

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Day 932: Black Swan Green

Cover for Black Swan GreenJason Taylor is thirteen years old in 1982, the beginning of Black Swan Green. He is somewhat of a misfit, obviously bright and interested in poetry, a stutterer, but he spends most of his time hiding his true self to be more acceptable to his schoolmates. Still, acceptance is fleeting. One year he is on the margins of popularity; the next, he’s a pariah.

His parents have some problems he doesn’t understand. His older sister Julia can’t wait to leave home for university. The economic climate is grim in the wake of Thatcherism.

Black Swan Green seems to Jason to be the most boring village imaginable. Still, he manages to have some adventures, visiting a strange old lady in the depths of the woods, taking poetry lessons from Madame Eva von Outryve de Crommelynck, literally dropping in on Gypsies, all the while trying to avoid the popular bullies in his class.

Although I sometimes wondered where this novel was going (and for a while wondered if any time travelers were going to appear), it eventually got there. More importantly, it features a distinctive voice of a bright, funny, sometimes naive boy. It has a unique notion of character that to me makes the novel stand out.

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Day 916: The Unraveling of Mercy Louis

Cover for The Unraveling of Mercy LouisAt the beginning of this novel, it is 1999 and the last day of Mercy Louis’s sophomore year in high school. The novel is set in the downtrodden refinery city of Port Sabine, Texas. Mercy lives with Maw Maw, her grandmother, a woman who combines a background of Cajun superstition with strict fundamentalism. Maw Maw has visions and believes that the End of Days will arrive at the end of the year.

Mercy is focused on the thing she finds most important—basketball. She follows her coach’s rigid routines and diet, and she doesn’t drink or get involved with boys. Her best friend and teammate Annie isn’t so careful, though, about parties or boys.

Troubles for the town begin when an employee of a convenience store finds the body of a fetus in the dumpster. National attention falls on the town, fundamentalists demonstrate against the evils of baby killing, and attention soon turns on the town’s teenage girls. As one of them remarks, it’s as if suddenly it’s a sin to be a girl.

Mercy feels pressure from other sources, too. She has had a fit or a vision at church. She has received a letter from her mother, who left her when she was a baby. She also has a boyfriend for the first time, Travis, a boy from an artistic, liberal background. And she’s started having trouble controlling one of her arms.

The other major character is Illa Stark, a misfit girl who has only one friend, Lennox, who works with her on the school paper. She has a crush on Lennox, but he is dating the formidable Annie. Illa also has a fascination with Mercy, the star of the girls’ basketball team.

Illa’s mother is wheelchair bound after a huge refinery accident several years ago. Now she hardly ever goes out. Illa doesn’t get out much either except as manager of the basketball team and in pursuit of her interest in photography.

Although this novel is a coming of age story, it is more about the pressures of religious fundamentalism on girls. Mercy tries to cope with the natural desires of teenage years to date and have fun, both of which she has been brought up to believe are evil.

I did care about these characters, but I felt that in some ways, although the novel doesn’t tie up all the threads, it comes to some easy solutions of the characters’ problems. I also found the writing—which is overloaded with similes and metaphors—to be irritating at times. So, I had a mixed reaction to this novel.

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