It’s been hard to write about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Hard to find words for how affecting I found the novel, how much I appreciated it. I really, really, emphatically, as loud as I’ve ever claimed it, think this is a brilliant novel. It’s not worth it to have best lists, I get it. But if I was someone who kept best lists (okay, I do) this one would be near the top. I can’t think of a book in recent (or any?) memory that has lived so fully in my mind, has occupied such a significant place in my thinking while – and after – I was reading it. Note I didn’t say “enjoyed” – it’s a hard story to live within, and you really will live within it (and for days and weeks after you finish it – it’s still following me around). It’s a long book, but you won’t notice the length, except maybe the anxiety of realizing you only have half of it left, the worry that eventually the last page will come. It’s a book that wants you to feel deeply and succeeds through masterful – truly – narration and character development in making you feel so. much. Continue reading
*The Light Between Oceans* takes a thought-experiment as plot: on a desert island you and your husband find a baby, you’d like to keep the baby and so you do, even though your husband has reservations, years go by and the baby becomes and is yours until you discover elsewhere on the island the grieving, *real* mother of the baby. What do you do? Do you return the baby?
Into this murky moral waters M.L. Stedman enters in the later two thirds of the novel. The first third of the novel is taken up with introducing this moral problem and is executed brilliantly: characters are well developed, the setting (an isolated lighthouse post) feels just this side of clever in terms of a too obvious metaphor and shifts between third person limited narration are made smoothly and in ways that enrich our understanding of their relationships.
But once the moral quandary arrives Stedman is overextended. His characters steadfastly adopt one position – the wife is for keeping the baby, the husband for returning her – without believable, let alone compelling, wrestling with the moral question. It is as if after making this moral problem utterly concrete in the scripted plot Stedman opts to return to the ethereal thought-problem by having the two characters stand in for moral positions rather for the whole people they have been up until the midpoint.
I stayed interested in the question even as my concern for the characters disappeared, and was (I’ll admit) impressed with the way Stedman resolved the question (a resolution I won’t spoil in case you’d like to read it).
Until. Until the epilogue. I’ve been trying to think of one good epilogue I’ve (ever) read and am coming up empty. This novel keeps with the tradition of ruining perfectly good endings by needing to end *again.* Why can’t the author trust the reader with being unsettled? Why should we as readers expect a neat solution or consolation? Don’t we read, in part, to look and poke at these questions in the safety of a novel where we trust the author to give us a believable – not necessarily comfortable – conclusion? Reading the epilogue made me distrust all I’d read before as if it was all a setup for this pat dismissal of the possibility – perhaps the necessity? – that these characters should suffer and *continue to suffer* because of their choices.
So if you can commit to *not* reading the epilogue (and to ignoring the increasingly forceful last few sentences of each chapter that insist on including references to light, dark and shadow in case we’re likely to miss that we’re in a gray area and need the moral guidance of the “light”) then you might well enjoy this novel. Everyone else seems to be reading it and it will give you an opportunity to weigh just how much you love your (partner) (child) (mother) (sister) and whether you love your own happiness more.
I’m training for another marathon (have I mentioned that already?) and so am back into listening to books while training (nothing like a good “read” to get you through the kilometres). My latest listen was to Gillian Flynn’s *Gone Girl* and I’m sorry to report that it was Just Terrible.
Sentences like “he was so angry his head literally exploded” —> needless to say the rest of the paragraph did not focus on a headless protagonist as the “literally” might have you believe <— occur with a frustrating regularity. The contrived oppositional accounts of events do, at first, provide some interesting questions about narrative reliability, but the device gets dull as the intent for the back-and-forth becomes a clear echo of the “he said” “she said” question the book asks about reliability and persuasion. In short the form reflects the content far too closely to be anything other than obnoxious.
And then there’s the sexism. The reduction of women to whores, bitches or saints with nothing else to complicate them – no stand alone reasons for their actions or feelings – all is naught but evidence of their eternal and inherent archetypes. It was gross. And frustrating. And so terrible.
Forget the hype. Ignore the book. There’s nothing thrilling about wishing – so hard – that characters would just kill one another already and finding that they just won’t.