My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

American-Iranian writer, Ottessa Moshfegh (O te zar  MOSH feg) 

I love page 1. This is what I learned from page 1. The female unnamed first person narrator sleeps. When she is not sleeping she slips out of her apartment whenever it might be, day or night, and picks up coffee (stimulant), trazadone (anti-depressant), Amdien (sleeping pills), and Nembutal (more sleeping pills) from a 24-hour bodega. She takes them all, along with animal crackers, while watching movies until she falls asleep. When she thinks of it she orders Thai take-away. Sometimes she hears her phone messages which are, mostly, confirmations of  appointments for spas or salons she has made in her sleep. She cancels them. She hates talking to people.

This all sounds like she’s on a slow slip to depression and eventual suicide. But no. I find out on page 7 that her attempt at hibernation is quite the opposite: self-preservational. She hopes that while sleeping all her cells will re-new themselves, re-align themselves – every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant foggy memories –  so that after a year she will wake up a whole new person with none of the hang-ups, fears, denials, hatreds, annoyances, incapabilities, sensitivities, regrets, and pain of the old one. 

There are other characters too, her best friend Riva, her on-off-on-off boyfriend, Trevor, and her psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle. All, like the protagonist, are bonkers. Or are they just typical Manhattanites in the 21st Century?

By the end of chapter 1 everything is set, and set up. 

At the beginning of chapter 2 we’re back to the beginning of the project. She feels excited, hopeful, and fully prepared for her great transformation

Of course, this being a narrative our first person protagonist often wakes up and the narrative consists of her methods of getting back to sleep again, all drug fuelled. Exercise? Caffeine was my exercise. It catalyzed my anxiety so that I could get back to sleep again. She also wakes to visit her psychiatrist, Dr Tuttle, who’s also mad as a cut-snake and writes down our narrator’s nightmares, which are all a pack of lies and mainly cobbled-together-fragments of bad movie plots, all intended to get more, and stronger, prescription drugs. Actually all her answers to Dr Tuttle’s questions are lies. 

“I was wondering if you could prescribe something a little stronger for bedtime. When I’m tossing and turning at night, I get so frustrated. It’s like I’m in hell.” She lied. 

“Hell? I can give you something for that.”

Her growing armoury or medication, prescriptions and samples from Dr Tuttle, have names like the siblings in second-rate Greek tragedies: Solfoton, Infermiterol, and Zyprexa. 

Not only do we find out what she does when she wakes up, but we also find out what she’s been doing when she’s been asleep: going out for coffee and drugs; ordering Chinese takeaway; rearranging her furniture; buying multiple tubs and multiple flavours of Häagen-Dazs ice cream which she forgets to eat or put in the freezer; booking Brazilians and fake tans; and chatting to guys on dating websites and getting, in return, closeups of their genitals. Thankfully, she too thinks this is going too far and gets her ditzy friend Riva to change her AOL password to something random and confusing so she won’t remember it. She hates Riva, especially when she talks. No, that’s not true, she really loves Riva. Well, actually, she hates her. Erm …

She’s obsessed with Whoopie Goldberg and old movies with predicable plots.

With all these pages of finding numerous ways to fall asleep they are surprisingly entertaining. It’s a hoot! But if you want your fiction characters to be nice and normal, don’t read this book. I wouldn’t want any of them at my lunch table. Nor would you. Trust me!

In fact, one of the attractions that kept me interested was what gross and/or outrageous thing was I going to read next? One day she wakes up in a new fur coat, the smell of which gives her the odd suspicion that she’s had sex with someone; and with a bunch of roses … on a train. 

Of course, the narrative of My Year of Rest and Relaxation is actually what she does between bouts of sleep, she even goes to Riva’s mother’s funeral. A book about sleep would be very thin, this one isn’t.

Moshfegh came to the attention of the literary world with her 2015 novel, Eileen, which won the Hemingway Foundation / PEN Award and was shortlisted for the Man-Booker Prize; however, The Irish Times reviewer hated it. Erin Cressida Wilson, who adapted Paula Hawkins’, Girl on a Train, for the screen will tackle Eileen for film producer, Scot Rubin. 

Here’s a short interview with Moshfegh talking about My Year of Rest and Relaxation.

You can buy the book in various formats, including the kindle version, here


Slam-Prose takes the Prize. Again.

American writer, Paul Beatty

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Paul Beatty is a 54 year old African American from Los Angeles and the first American to win the Man-Booker Prize (2016) since American writers were included in 2014. He has an MFA in creative writing from Brooklyn College and an MA in psychology from Boston University. In 1990 he became the first ever Grand Poetry Slam Champion of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe which garnered him a book deal. Two volumes of poetry Big Bank Take Little Bank (1991), Joker, Joker, Deuce (1994) and three novels , White Boy Suffle (1996), Tuff (2000), and Slumberland (2008) followed.  The Sellout was also awarded the 2015 National Book Critics Award for fiction.

Rappers and slam poets are never stuck for words

… And on hot 104-degree San Fernando Valley days, when we’re carrying their groceries to their cars or stuffing their mailboxes with bills, they turn and say, “Too many Mexicans,” a tacit agreement between aggrieved strangers that it’s neither the heat nor the humidity, but that the blame lies with our little brown brothers to the south and the north and next door, and at the Grove, and everywhere else in Califas;

they begin a collocated list and then subvert the last item

… Charisma flung back her long straight black hair from her face and took a hit that illuminated the mysteries of the internet, Ulysses, and the American fascination with cooking shows;

foster a slick line in similes

and comforts you like a lover making your bed while you’re still in it;

manufacture an artistic range of compound adjectives

My paternal grandmother was mocha-tinged, cafe-au-lait, graham-fucking-cracker brown! How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids? Why aren’t there any yoghurt-colored, egg-shell-toned, string-cheese skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books? That’s why black literature sucks!;

add a touch of ethnic colour

… If I was lucky, I’d catch a glimpse of Marpessa, Charisma, and their homegirls holding court at the rear gate, sassy as a brass big band, hula-hooping their hips, chanting Ah beep beep, walking down street, ten times a week …”Ungawa! Ungawa!” That means black power! … I’m soul sister number nine, sock it to me one more time…;

and toss in a joke or ten

If New York is the City That Never Sleeps then Los Angeles is the City That’s Always Passed Out On The Couch. 

“I hate the act [of writing], definitely,” said Paul Beatty. “I mean, I don’t write much. One book every seven years or so. But it’s slow. When I’m doing it, it does give me a satisfaction. But it’s hard. It’s like how do you string together enough of these little moments where something is happening? That’s a pain in the a—.”

This is odd, or clever, because reading this book impels you to read it as fast as you can as if it was written while standing bare-foot on hot coals. But, then that, I suppose, is what slam-prose is all about.

In an age where a song lyric is suddenly, and some say at-long-last, recognised as literature – thanks to the Nobel Academy, The Sellout finally brings slam prose into the mainstream, and how? By out slam-prosing last year’s slam-prose Booker winner, Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings by showing James how it’s really done. Where A Brief History … was a literary wank sprukin’ how boring seven pages of no-punctuation thought-stream can really be, The Sellout, o-n-l-y  j-u-s-t makes it over the literary line by having something to say. And no wonder publishing house after publishing house turned it down (What? A book about reinstating slavery? Are you kiddin’ me?!) until finally Farrar, Straus, & Giroux hyperventilated and agreed to take a punt.

If you like a novel to have ‘nice characters’ and a ‘good story’ stay away from The Sellout. If you like clever word-play, African-American street-speak, stand-up with balls, if you’re a book judge or a literary critic, or you like a book you can keep on the coffee table and dip in to when you’re feeling low you’ll lerve this one.

You can download the paper or ebook version here or from Amazon here.


The High Window by Raymond Chandler

British-American crime writer, Raymond Chandler

Writers don’t think too much about genre; writers write what interests them. Genres are more important to booksellers as signposts to help readers find what they might enjoy.

Reading crime fiction is not only about who done it. It’s an escapist adventure into a strange world, almost filmic, where our fundamental assumptions are always confirmed: good, even if a little muddy, wins in the end.

The plot revolves around a rare, valuable and stolen coin, The Brasher Doubloon; a cranky client, two corpses, a wimpy son, wise-cracking dames, lazy police and nasty rich men. You get the picture.

Most crime fiction is written in the first person, which has its limitations. Unlike a third-person god-like narrator who knows everything, what people think and what they want including what will happen in the future, a first person narrator only knows what’s going on in their own head, and relies on what is seen, heard and felt to give clues to character’s motives and wishes. This is paramount in Chandler’s work: descriptions of people are all about physiognomy – the angle if a chin, clothes – the cut of a dress, gives clues to personalities, behaviour, and what might make them either smile at you or shoot you in the back.

“He was a lanky man with carroty short hair growing down to a point on his forehead. He had a long narrow head packed with shabby cunning. Greenish eyes stared under orange eyebrows. His ears were large and might have flapped min a high wind. He had a long nose that would be into things. The whole face was a trained face, a face that would know how to keep a secret, a face that held the effortless composure of a corpse in the morgue.”

All his characters are opportunists, if not after a quick buck, a quick fix, or a hook-up, they’re looking for gaps in your defense, eager to win a point, even if only for a little self-esteem. Characters with suggestive names: Eddie Prue, Jesse Breeze, Spanglet, and Linda Conquest – not unlike character’s names of Charles Dickens: Herbert Pocket, Charles Cheeryble, Bumble, and Mercy Pecksniff. The writing of Chandler is entertaining and lovingly cliché-free; it’s as if he searches for an ever-new cliché, uses it and immediately abandons it…

“Three dizzy-looking dames… all cigarettes and arched eye-brows and go-to-hell expressions.”

“She had eyes like strange sins.”

“Men … faces like lost battles”

“… enough clothes to hide behind a toothpick.”

” … there were quiet voices whispering of love or 10%”

“A tall fine-looking man in a grey suit cut by an angel…”

“women … faces like stale beer…”

“a great long gallows of a man…”

“She looked as flustered as a side of beef.”

“… as unperturbed as a bank manager refusing a loan.”

“You boys are cute as a couple if lost golf balls.”

Many commentators, such as the British crime writer, Mark Billington, praise the characterisation of Chandler’s work, but it’s all in Chandler’s outward description of them. Such commentators don’t realise how much descriptive work they do themselves to arrive at a rounded picture of a character; inspired, of course, by a few well-chosen and succinct words by the writer. This is higher praise, but it not the praise they’re talking about.

Time to Kill, the 1942 screen version of The High Window starring Lloyd Nolan

If anything is going on in anyone’s head it’s never mentioned except as a cause or result of a look, a tone, or snide remark. Raymond Chandler is s master of this. Detailed descriptions of a room, a desk, a face, are iconic: the perceptive awareness of an accomplished private eye like Philip Marlow, Chandler’s alter-ego. He sees everything, even the clues that a reader might miss. There is no psychological self-examination except for the odd purple passage of self-depreciation. There is no romance but more than a hint of the romantic hero, especially in The High Window, where he rescues a damsel in distress, but not from anything as corny as a caped villain, but more from her own self-delusion, bad choices, and shallow vulnerability. Marlow is a good guy, mistrusted but tolerated by the police, hired but not liked by his clients. He’s a loner but his apartment, and especially his kitchen, are neat and clean, unlike his talk to women he doesn’t trust…

“I don’t like this house or you or the air of repression in the joint, or the squeezed down face of the little girl of that twerp of a son you have, or this case, or the truth I’m not told about it and the lies I am told about it and …”

It would be fair to say that this is a minor Chandler; the plot lacks the sensationalism that popular crime fiction has come to nurture, even though it has been filmed twice in the 1940s but neither was a success. It is, however, classic Chandler, all the more enjoyable for the wise-cracking, plain-speaking, and indifferent, but work-man-like Marlow, who would never slap a woman; but then why would he when his wit and words are far more effective.

The Brasher Doubloon, the 1947 film version starring George Montgomery

Chandler, although born in the USA in Chicago in 1888, was raised and educated in England, becoming a British subject in 1907 but returned to America when he was 30. He lost his job as an oil executive in the Great Depression and turned to pulp fiction, studying the Perry Mason novels of Erle Stanley Gardner. The Big Sleep was his first published novel and featured for the first time, Philip Marlow. The High Window is the third in the Marlow series.

You can read The High Window as an ebook here at the Canadian site of Project Gutenburg. In Canada it is in the public domain. You can only download it for free if it is out of copyright in your country.


The North Water by Ian McGuire

Ian McGuire pic
English academic and writer, Ian McGuire.

Since 1996 Ian McGuire has been at The University of Manchester initially as a lecturer in American Literature and more recently as a lecturer in Creative Writing. He now co-directs the Centre for New Writing. His first novel, Incredible Bodies, “very funny and disconcertingly sad” said The Times; a contemporary campus novel was published by Bloomsbury in 2006. He specialises in the American realist tradition; Melville, Conrad are evoked in The North Water, his second novel (2016), and not just because it is set on a whaler. However the tone is most-certainly modern, mainly because of the very modern ‘foul’ language: he pulls no punches.

McGuire’s notable reviewers of The North Water, Hilary Mantel, Martin Amis, and Colm Tóibín, have written repeatedly about his “narrative tension” and his “remorselessly vivid” prose but when the writer writes narratives, each stuffed with its own tense detailed vividness: the brutal murder, then rape of a street urchin; the evisceration of a screaming sepoy; a face blown away with musket-shot; an arm ripped from a man’s torso by a ravenous polar bear; that same creature killed with a harpoon to the spine; the slaughter, dismemberment, and carving up of whales and their blubber; the medical inspection of a ravished anus; oh, and a whoring piece of low-life who sniffs then sucks his filthy fingers just “getting his final money’s worth”, all one needs to do is describe all this simply and accurately and ‘remorseless vividness’ is what you’ve got. I’m not at all deriding McGuire’s work, quite the opposite, but when your material is as rich, rare, and image-encrusted as any material can get, describing it simply is what a talented writer must do; and he does.

The tale, circa 1859, is one of a whaling expedition from the sludge of the Humber estuary, northeast England, to the whiskey ‘n’ women – each at a shilling a pop – in Lerwick of the wind-blown Shetlands, then north, and north again, and as far north as one can possibly go, beyond the Arctic Circle to the North Water, northwest of Greenland, in a boat packed with foul-mouthed vagabonds, murderers, liars, rapists, brutish thugs, opportunists with grudges; where life is a drudge, full of excrement, gore, and blood; where death is as easy and as light as a penny; where killing is a chore after your porridge, and where one shits first or is forever shat upon. Get the picture?

All ye who must like your book’s characters keep well away from this one.

But, yes, it is one of the most pleasurable reads I’ve had in a long time. This is where literary fiction meets plot and the latter comes up trumps; ah, but oh how sweet a brutal plot can be when it’s dressed in literariness and style such as this!

There are two main characters, Henry Drax, a villain of “pure evil” if there ever was one – we see him in all his ‘gory’, literary; and Patrick Sumner, a disgraced surgeon from his days serving the Raj in India, where a simple miscalculation under fire shatters his reputation. These two misfits, one with a shadow of redemption, the other, with absolutely none, lock horns on a fatal voyage where whaling may or may not be the ultimate goal: no spoilers here.

McGuire uses an omnipotent third-person narrator with no literary qualms about swapping POVs; all for going where the narrative takes him. (See my previous post of The Filth Heart, where the writer, Dan Simmons, abounds in such undermining qualms). The pace is fast and engaging but for brief passage of short but dense and fascinating description. A great read!

Highly recommended.

Sherlock Holmes, where are you?

Sherlock Holmes, invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1897 in A Study in Scarlet, keeps popping up again and again; a contemporary television series “Sherlock” (2010) starring Benedict Cumerbatch, and a movie franchise “Sherlock Holmes” (1: 2009, 2: 2011, 3: in development) starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Now he appears in two celebrated novels.

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

The Fifth Heart Cover pic

Fiction, by its very definition, is the process of “imaginative narration” or “a composition of non-factual events” and accordingly enables writers to create, to ‘make up’, whatever the hell they want. It is a little incongruous then that most readers seem to want to read stories that are familiar, plot driven (literary fiction is on the decline) and with an ending that is expected and therefore satisfying. I think it is fair to say that all stories can be whittled down to the good guy wins, the bad guy looses or, as Oscar Wilde has Miss Prism say about her three volume novel she wrote in her youth, in The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 2, Scene 1, “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means”.  However fantasy and science fiction, extremely ‘made up’ narratives, are among the top five most popular literary genres. Still within their contexts what is familiar (treachery, jealousy, love, betrayal, and relationships) is still what is expected.

Dan Simmons pic

Dan Simmons is one of the few novelists whose work spans the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, suspense, historical fiction, noir crime fiction, and mainstream literary fiction. His books are published in 29 counties.

I first encountered Dan Simmons with his novel, Drood (2009), his re-invention of Dickens’ last and unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. I didn’t finish it. It had nothing to do with Dickens and I have very little time for horror/fantasy. However, with The Fifth Heart (2015) I was prepared to ‘swallow’ whatever Simmons ‘made up’; and he makes up everything except the names of his two main characters, Sherlock Holmes, a made up character himself, and the novelist, Henry James, a real person.

It is clear from page one that the reader is well and truly in Dan Simmons territory: Henry James, the famous American expat novelist (and real person once upon a time) is approaching 50, in Paris, depressed, and plans to kill himself by throwing himself into the Seine under Pont Neuf. Not surprisingly he is thwarted in his suicide attempt (it doesn’t take such Holmesian logic to realise that Henry James’s name is on the front cover and this is only page 4) by a Norwegian explorer who James instantly recognises as Sherlock Holmes (you know, the literary character invented by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) despite the disguise (wig and puttied nose); despite the dark and misty night; despite the fact that this is 1896 and Holmes, the fictional character, has been dead for 3 years, having been killed off in the last of the Holmes published mysteries, The Adventure of the Final Problem published in 1893 which saw Holmes tumble over Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in the deadly grip of his arch-foe Moriarty. The bodies were never found. Ha! Oh, Henry James shrugs off all these discrepancies, and Simmons expects us to do so too, since James remembers meeting Holmes at an afternoon soirée at the home of his good friend Mrs. O’Connor four years before. Holmes is also contemplating suicide because he is worried that he may not be a real person; he only “feels really alive” when he is on (read “written into”) a mystery. This is real fiction I keep reminding myself and I promised myself I would keep my disbelief at bay and go along for the ride…that is what readers of fiction are supposed to do.

The mystery, “The Mystery of the Century” as the quote on the jacket cover reassures us concerns a group of friends, known affectionately as The Five Hearts, and known well by Henry James. One of them, Clover Adams, The Fifth Heart, committed suicide two years prior to the action but on every anniversary of the death, the remaining members of the group all receive a type-written card announcing unsubtilely “She was murdered.” Holmes coerces James to accompany him to the USA to help solve the mystery.

A novel is within its own universe; and this universe may or may not be the universe of the reader. This is most obvious is the genres of horror, science fiction, and fantasy; in fact it is possible, and easy, to argue that the universe of a novel is never that of the reader.

In the same sense that the stature of David had always existed in the massive block of stone that Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci fought over and Michelangelo, who obviously won the fight, simply had to remove the outer, and superfluous, rock to reveal the image of the boy, a story can also be thought of as having happened in all its detail, nuances, and meaning and someone just needs to tell it; to write it down. This is exactly what happens in journalism, history writing, and memoir. There is also a sense of this in all forms of fiction

Let us assume that I write a story about an astronaut who develops bowel cancer. This would be a very rare, and unlucky, even ironic, occurrence since all astronauts, before donning their space suit, for rehearsal, training, and the actual space travel itself, must undergo an enema; if you wanted an occupation that would guarantee you a healthy bowel, especially if your family history was riddled with unhealthy ones, then astronaut would be the job for you. Now, my story hangs on this one event: the tragedy of my protagonist who contracts a life-threatening disease, the one he was convinced would never happen to him and how he comes to terms with his own mortality even though he is the healthiest, most positive, most enthusiastic, fearless, and life-loving person he knows; he’s walked in space, for Christ’s sake, to repair a faulty solar energy unit while conducting experiments on neutron absorption, and stood on the moon watching the Earth rise. He deserves to live.

The last thing I want my reader to do is to rush to his computer and Google ‘enema+astronaut’ to verify that astronauts do indeed undergo enemas before they don their space-suits. I want my reader to accept that in the universe of my story, which may not be his/her universe, astronauts do undergo enemas before climbing into their space suits. By the way, I have no idea if astronauts have enemas or not; I made it up, but it’s not a difficult idea to accept; it’s plausible, in the universe I have created for my story; but my point is that it doesn’t have to be plausible it just has to be acceptable.

In the universe of The Fifth Heart people that actually existed in the reader’s universe (Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Samuel Clemens – yes, Mark Twain makes an appearance) rub shoulders, have dinners and arguments, and go on mystery-solving adventures with made-up characters from other literary universes, ie, Sherlock Holmes, and even he doesn’t know if he’s a real person or not. I find this very hard to accept; I know I should, but I can’t; and that’s why I stopped reading it.

Mr. Simmons also makes a novelistic mistake: he breaks the ‘fourth-wall’ and has his narrator address the reader directly.

“Wait a minute. The reader needs to pardon this interruption as the narrator makes a comment here.” (Who is speaking here? If it is the narrator surely he would say “The reader needs to pardon this interruption as I make a comment here.” This is another narrator! (Oh, picky-picky!)

This would be fine, and normally acceptable, if it is necessary, but it is not. Simmon’s narrator is not a character in the story, he is an un-named voice and like most un-named narrative voices, is all-seeing, all knowing, omnipotent: god-like. Mr. Simmons allocates almost a whole chapter to his narrator to apologise to the reader for switching the narrative’s point of view from Henry James to Sherlock Holmes when it is an acceptable tradition in fiction writing that an omnipotent narrator can change the POV whenever it is necessary. There are many novels that do this, the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St Aubyn for example (see my blog post of October 6, 2014): St Aubyn’s narrator jumps around all over the place. The reason for Simmons doing this is that he may have never done this before and he felt that he owed it to his loyal readers to explain what he is doing; or, maybe, that is what distinguishes literary fiction from other genres; or, maybe, it is the publisher/editor speaking. Oh! Never mind!

Mr Holmes by Mitch Cullin

Mr Holmes Cover pic

The universe of Mitch Cullin’s Mr Holmes is unsullied. We meet the ageing Holmes (a real person in the same universe first created by Doyle) in the twilight years of his life, in 1947. He lives in a little cottage in Sussex tended by a saddened widow, Mrs Munro, who lives next door with her young delightful son, Roger. Mr Holmes has become quite an expert at bee-keeping and despite his curmudgeonly demeanour forms an affectionate attachment to the intelligent lad who shares his fascination and love of bees.

The story has three narrative lines: his quiet and, seemingly, idyllic life in the country, tending bees with Roger; a trip to Japan, from which he has just returned, where he was invited by another bee-keeping enthusiast, Mr. Umezaki who lives with his dour mother and male partner in Kobe; and an unsolved mystery, from the zenith of his career, which Holmes has been writing, but which needs a resolution and which the young Roger finds buried on Mr. Holmes’ cluttered desk and begins to read: The Glass Armonicist.

An armonica is a musical instrument consisting of glass discs of increasing diameters on a single shaft which when spun produce, via friction, notes of calculated tones. An armonicist is a player of such an instrument.

These three seemingly unconnected narratives coalesce due to a tragedy that rocks not only the ageing detective’s sense of himself but also gives him an understanding of life and love that he didn’t know he needed. This is literary fiction at its best: intriguing, beguiling, and satisfying.

Mitch Cullin pic 3

Mitch Cullin is an American writer, born in 1968; he has written seven novels and shares his time between Arcadia, California and Tokyo Japan.

A screen adaptation, Mr. Holmes, was produced in 2015 starring Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, and Hiroyuki Sanada.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Hanya Yanagihara Pic
American novelist Hanya Yanagihara. A Little Life was short-listed for the 2015 Man-Booker Prize

This is a novel about friendship; no, it’s more than that, it’s about love-ship. It’s a solar system of people, with planets, Willem (an actor), JB (a painter), and Malcolm (an architect), and their hugging friends who hover like moons as they all circle in ever-decreasing orbits around Jude (a lawyer), the sun-like centre; where a career is as important as sex, where sex is fluid and non-defining, where who you think you are can be a million miles away from who others think you are, and where desire is unhinged from the brain and is a simple bodily necessity.

Yes, on one level it is a hymn to this love-ship but it is also a harrowing account of the affects of child sexual abuse and “how far a body will go to protect itself, at all costs. How hard it fights to live. But then the fact is,” she suggests, “our bodies don’t care about us at all.”

Yanagihara puts omnipotence back into the qualities of the third-person narrator: her narrator is fluent in the intricacies of pure math[s] – zero must exist but has it been proven to exist; the legal arguments that define the difference between what is fair and what is right; the architectural pitfalls of urban interior design; the sexual ambivalence of well-heeled twenty-somethings as opposed to the sexual certainty of the under-educated; and the life-threatening aspects and the psychological roller-coaster ride of a physical and emotional retard whose depths of self-loathing are bottomless, but who is, by every account, the most intelligent of the lot of them. This character, Jude St Francis, whose little life this book is about, is the emotional heart of this group of friends living in and around New York City, and we are not spared any of the tragic, horrific, and dehumanising aspects of his existence and upbringing and it is all due to Yanagihara’s skill that his life is so enthralling. She makes it very clear that intelligence can overcome even the most debilitating consequences, while at the same time proving that, in regards to the self, intelligence has very little traction.

Yanagihara’s prose is informal and chatty (conjunctions often begin new ideas, just like a chat with your neighbour), dense (a paragraph can contain the past, the future, and the present – she loves dashes and brackets), and of course her characters are flawed (after-all there are no novelistic perfect characters) but her description of them is pure, true, but non-judgemental; unlike her characters’ descriptions of each other.

And even though it is difficult at any given moment to understand where the narrative is on its own timeline there is a feeling of moving forward; that despite the rich characterisation and back-story anecdotes a narrative is unfolding. She pulls no punches so even as you are enjoying a moment of happiness in Jude’s chaotic, damaged, but professionally charmed life, there is a dread in your guts that it could all come tumbling down disastrously, on the next page. Sometimes you feel like you want to skip a bit, so detailed and horrendous are the descriptions of moments in Jude’s life but the skipping moment is always voyeuristically delayed and finally when the dread is over you can feel that lump in your throat slowly melting away and you can breath evenly again.

Hanya Yanagihara is an American writer and editor of Hawaiian extraction and currently works as the deputy editor of The New York Times Style magazine. Her first novel, The People in the Trees, was considered one of the best in 2013.

I wrote my second novel, A Little Life, in what I still think of as a fever dream: for 18 months, I was unable to properly concentrate on anything else … but if the actual writing of the book was brief, it’s only now that I realise that I had been thinking of this novel for far longer. I began collecting photography when I was 26, 14 years ago; and when I actually began writing, it was these images I returned to, again and again: they provided a sort of tonal sound check, as it were … Now that the book is done, I realize that these images are now so inextricable from the book — and my experience of writing it — that looking at them again is somehow jolting: they’ve become a visual diary of that year and a half, and I find myself unable to look at them without thinking of the life of my novel.

Hanya Yanagihara (

Yanagihara is not interested in marriage; it is not for her, nor for her friends, nor for her characters. A Little Life makes us aware of the meaning of the word, family: how we create them, keep them, succour them, honour them, even when there are no blood-ties, the lack of which seemingly makes this family stronger, truer, safer, more honourable.

This is the first book I can remember reading that made me cry (there are also a lot of laughs, mainly of recognition) well before the half-way mark; it is however, despite the title, a big book. If you find the first fifty pages just a blur of dense information persevere, it is very much worth it.

A great book!

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Harper Lee
Harper Lee

In 1993 Joanne Woodward was the narrator in Sorcese’s film of Edit Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Her voice was measured and melifuous, full of American cadences of the time; a formal English suggesting refinement, wisdom, and good behaviour.

I was just over two pages into Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee’s new/old novel (and if you’re a reader and haven’t heard of it you’ve probably been living on Mars), when I realised the voice in my head I was reading with was that of Woodward’s with the same measurement and melifuousness perfect for phrases like “a family example not Iikely to be discountenanced” and “Love whom you will but marry your own kind was a dictum amounting to instinct within her.”

The mood of life in Maycomb is set by annacdotes of the people in it. Tales of loyalty, family pride, and self reliance pepper the opening pages so by the time I met the aged Atticus Finch I was already steeped in small-town life and flavour. I expected, hoped for, a slow reveal of Atticus Finch but Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird and how could the author know what an indelable image her creation would leave on the minds of her readers; not to forget the looks and fatherly masculinity of Gregory Peck, from the 1962 film, that couloured it. Over a million copies have been sold in July: the month of it’s release, on the 14th. It’s been ringing tills all over the world and some critics have sharpened their knives and honed their sarcasm to firmly put it back in the bottom drawer.

It certainly isn’t as good as To Kill a Mockingbird but then no-one really thought it would be as part of the marketing campaign was to explain that the original publisher remarked to a young Harper Lee that the most interesting parts of the book were the flashbacks to Scout’s early years and being a novice, Lee took his advice and went back to her desk and, as we know, wrote Mockingbird, which has become a modern classic loved the world over. What is interesting in this book is its role as the precursor to that iconic text. You feel a sense of privilege to discover the germs of scenes that grew into those we know so well: the courtroom scene, for instance, that forms the climax of Mockingbird is a simple reminiscence Jean Louise (Scout) has when she visits the same courthouse.
However what is a surprise is that her father, Atticus Finch, is not the same man as the Mockingbird hero. In Go Set a Watchman ( from Isaiah: 21, 6) Atticus is a respected member of the Maycomb community but his attitude to race relations is totally different to those of the younger Atticus who Lee portrayed as a hero of tolerance and rational thinking; here he tries to justify racist attitudes as necessary to deal with, and live peacefully within, his chosen home. These ideas confound and horrify Scout, and us. However the climax, the confrontation between father and daughter, is very shallow and under-written with an outcome that has more to do with blood than sincere argument; the threat is weak and the ending is therefore disappointing.
It is remarkable to realise that not only was race still a devisive issue 20 years after the story of Mockingbird but today, in 2015, it is still an open wound on the face of American society: still as raw as a fresh cigarette burn.

As the mature woman Scout realises that her upbringing rendered her colour blind; but how can that be now that the model of her raising has turned against her? or was he always like he is now? If she is to stay in this world she needs a guide, a Watchman, to lead her through this place where she doubts she belongs or understands.
The writing is not as sharp and reliable as in Mockingbird but there are flashes of brilliance that set up images that stay with you; and most of them to do with the flashes back to Scout’s teenage years and before. The third person narrative is of the ‘close writing’ kind that sometimes gets so close to Scout that it often slips into the first person, a device that effectively creates the feeling of personal truth.
Go Set a Watchman as a companion piece to To Kill a Mockingbird is its strongest attribute; it may be thin and embryonic but to those who value artistic endeavour and its evolution it’s a valuable text.