Booker 2015: Yanagihara’s picture of a damaged life shows she’s a talent to watch

A Little Life
Hanya Yanagihara
Pan Macmillan
Picador

“I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high.”

Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel (her second), “A Little Life” is currently bookies favourite to win the 2015 Booker Prize. Given the bookies record of being way off mark most of the last decade with their picks this favouritism should probably be taken with a huge pitch of salt.  There are many things to be said about this novel, but one thing is for sure: it is hard to argue with Yanagihara’s quote above – emotionally everything is ramped up to 11 in this novel. An alternate title for the book could well have been Love and Pity.

The book starts off as a tale of four men – Willem, Malcolm, Jean-Baptiste and Jude –  who become friends at a small Massachusetts college, and who aspire to great things. Willem, an aspiring actor, hails from a poor farming family, and is the only surviving child of four; Malcolm, an aspiring architect, from a wealthy new York family; Jean Baptiste (JB), an aspiring artist; and Jude, an aspiring lawyer whose background seems more than a little murky. We start of leaning a little bit about each of the four, and wonder what direction the book will go in.

This four-way focus is – sadly in my view – jettisoned also immediately in favour of becoming sort of the Gospel of St Jude (Patron Saint of Hope and impossible causes). This occurs with what becomes a leitmotif in the novel – Jude cutting himself (in a self harm way).As the book progresses the reasons for this coping mechanism become clearer and Jude’s past has left him severely damaged – both physically and mentally. He is a man in almost constant pain – “his body owns him, not the other way around.” As we delve further into Jude’s past we see a picture of continuous horrors. This misery could become quite relentless very quickly were it not balanced with an exploration of love and friendship – primarily with Willem.

In many ways this is a book about love, friendship and the life-long relationships, as well as our scars – both emotional and physical – that blight and shape our lives. Self perception and self worth and how we see ourselves and others is also a strong theme – not just how we talk and interact with one another but also, as demonstrated in the relationships JB has with the three others, through art.  It also explores the interesting question of how much do you really need to know about another person to be in love with them and happy with them. Is it really important to know every detail of someones life before you?

All this is genuinely fascinating but its overall effect is partly neutered by some decisions Yanagihara takes. Firstly, everyone, and I mean Everyone, is or  becomes successful in this book: JB, Willem, Malcolm, Andy, Harold. No one fails and just end up working in the local public library or convenience store, they’re all VERY successful.

There is also an unflinching niceness to all the people she has surrounded Jude with. Bar a few minor excursions into nastiness all the people who love Jude, do so at almost saint-like levels. With the best intentions in the world, this doesn’t ring true. In real life Jude would have succeeded in alienating and pushing away most, if not all of these people. You need an impressive sense of masochism to remain friends with someone like Jude for the length of time the characters in this book do. His past may mean he deserves undying love and affection, and as a reader it is hard not to think so too, but in reality that isn’t how the world works. And that feeling kept creeping back into my thoughts through-out the novel. It almost as if Yanagihara has decided we need this level of saintliness from everyone else to balance Jude’s pain and misery. Despite this, the book still never feels like it is selling out Jude himself though, which is admirable. “What was happiness but an extravagance, and impossible state to maintain partly because it was so difficult to articulate? He couldn’t remember being a child and being able to define happiness: there was only misery, or fear, and the absence of misery and fear, and the latter state was all he had needed or wanted”

Some US reviewers have described the book as a masterpiece: It’s not, far from it, but there is something compelling about it all the same, and I’ll admit I spent much of the books final 100 pages in tears (not something I do very often). That the book had the ability to do this, almost despite itself and my reservations, is worth praising. It’s a long book – pushing 800 pages, but I had no problem getting through it, I wanted to know whether the inevitable was indeed inevitable.

Yanagihara is certainly a talent to watch, and I will look forward to whatever she writes next. Do I think this is the Booker winner? No, although I wont be surprised if it makes the short-list.


Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan/Netgalley


Gaarder’s upcoming tale of climate change just too preachy

The World According to Anna
Jostein Gaarder
Orion Publishing Group
W&N
Pub Date: 12 November 2015

I’ve been a fan of Jostein Gaarder from the first moment I read ‘Sophie’s World’ in the mid 90s. It is still a book I like a lot (and not just because of its unfailing ability to start arguments over its merits between anyone with a Philosophy degree). He has always been an author that brilliantly bridges the gap between young adult and adult fiction.

His latest book ‘The World According to Anna’ is a climate change fable.

Two days shy of her 16th birthday (12 December) Anna is a young girl committed to environmental protection. She’s angry. She also has a lively imagination in which she becomes her own grand-daughter in 2086, in a world where climate change has proven to be true and much of the worlds natural resources are depleted and most of its wildlife and fauna extinct. How could you do this to me, the future Anna (Nova) asks her ‘grandmother’. With the help of her boyfriend, Jonas, she decides she has to take action to prevent the future she has ‘seen’.

Meanwhile Anna has also been taken, by her parents, to see a  psychiatrist. They are worried about her ‘visions’. He befriends her after saying that there is nothing physically or mentally wrong with her. He too is interested in climate change as his daughter, Esther, who works for the World Food Programme, has been kidnapped in Somalia. This incident, we are told, is linked to political turmoil caused by climate change.

The idea of climate change is of course quite a good topic for a novel, in fact it has been close to Gaarder’s heart for many years. He and his wife established an environment award, the Sophie Prize, which each year since 1997 has rewarded a person who has made special efforts to create awareness about climate change and the environment, with $100,000  See more at: http://climatesafety.info/authors-and-global-warming-why-dont-they-care/#sthash.BElDAyIw.dpuf So he has certainly put his money where his mouth is on the subject. But, there is a fine line – even when aimed at young adults, which this book clearly is – between involving and informing and being too preachy and lecturing. For me, even as a believer, this book is more the latter than the former.

Worst than that however, I didn’t buy into any of the characters. None of the characters seemed remotely believable to me. I didn’t believe in Anna or anyone else. They just felt like empty vessels to deliver a lecture on climate change. Indeed had they been more believable maybe I would have felt less lectured to?

This is not to dismiss the predictions, ideas or some of the comments made in the book. I liked (if that’s the right word) the vision of the future where people had to hand pollinate fruit trees because bees are extinct – the evidence for harm to bee populations is evident even now; I liked the cutting down of a forest to build a wind farm; and I loved the satirical and cutting dig at emissions trading schemes. I even liked some of the proposals for the solution – as espoused in the book by Jonas. But. As a novel it didn’t really work for me.

Even great writers are allowed the occasional dud, and this for me is one of Gaarder’s. A shame as I have a friend whose birthday it is on 12th December, and had this been better this would have a been a great gift.

Review copy supplied by Orion/Netgalley

Booker Prize 2015: Marilynne Robinson – Lila

“She did wonder why dust fell so evenly, more like rain than like snow, since the wind pushed snow into drifts.

I was pleased when I saw Marilynne Robinson’s name appear on this year’s Booker long-list. I was also slightly embarrassed as I have had Lila sat on my book shelf for 6 months without getting around to it. This was odd because her two previous novels, which also take place in the Iowa town of Gilead – Gilead and Home – had been books which I loved: Indeed, Gilead is one of the finest novels of the last 25 years in my opinion (and one in which we first met  – if only in passing – Lila “I mean only respect when I say that your mother has always struck me as someone with whom the Lord might have chosen to spend some part of His mortal time.”)

The eponymous heroine of the latest book, Lila steps into the Gilead church one day to get out of the rain, and immediately find herself fascinated by its preacher, the reverend John Ames. He meanwhile is immediately smitten. She has come a long way. Abandoned as a young child; rescued/stolen by a woman named Doll (“Stealing a child, when Doll had come to her like an angel in the wilderness“). She is flighty and doesn’t really trust anyone.  Her whole life she has been running from her beginnings, living hand to mouth and drifting from place to place with Doll  and a rag-tag of other drifters as her  only family and protectors. It is Doll who gives her her name –  hoping that a pretty name will make her a pretty woman.

The book moves back and forth between this past life and her meeting and growing relationship with Ames. It is a sweet courtship, and one that might feel twee or corny in less skilled hands. She plants flowers on his dead wife’s grave and suddenly there is a marriage proposal: “The roses are beautiful. On the grave. It’s very kind of you to do that.” She shrugged. “I like roses.” “Yes, but I wish there were some way I could repay you.” She heard herself say, “You ought to marry me.” He stopped still, and she hurried away, to the other side of the road, the flush of shame and anger so hot in her that this time surely she could not go on living. When he caught up with her, when he touched her sleeve, she could not look at him. “Yes,” he said, “you’re right. I will.”

Life the previous novels in the series it is a beautifully written and moving narrative. Once again it is hard not to warm to Ames and his thoughtful religiousness – there is a lot religion going on, plenty of quoted scripture – not totally surprising when one of the central characters is a preacher perhaps. And this might not be to some people’s taste, but it is who these people are, and whilst it is clear across the books that Robinson herself is religious, and some have accused her books of preaching I (as a firm non-believer) disagree as there is thoughtfulness and questioning never far from the surface: “And then she thought, Praying looks just like grief. Like shame. Like regret.” Also, it is a nice touch how when Lila shows some interest in the Bible that Ames suggests she read something like St Matthew, but she is drawn to the darker, more conflicted tales of Job and Ezekiel. The latter perhaps is no surprise as she can identify with a child cast out and saved by a stranger, something she feels parallels her own life.

But this is a love story. A love story between two characters who seem to have spent much of their life searching for something – answers, hope, salvation; and in a way both are looking not for themselves but for others: Lila’s interest in religion and the Bible seems to stem more from a fear that  her ‘family’ in her past life will be undeserving of salvation and getting into heaven, than about worries for herself. There is part of her that feels that she doesn’t deserve to be loved and to be happy. But she feels that despite reservations and fears that Ames is a kindred spirit “he was beautiful for an old man. She did enjoy the sight of him. He looked as if he’d had his share of loneliness, and that was all right. It was one thing she understood about him.”

I finished Lila wanting to read Gilead again. I suspect that in turn may want to make me re-read Lila again. This is not to say that Lila fails to stands alone as a self contained piece of fiction, it most certainly does,  but is also  enhanced if you have read Gilead and (to a lesser degree) Home. Is it a Booker winner? I wouldn’t be disappointed if it was, and certainly wouldn’t be disappointed to see it on the short list.

BAAF goes bust

Just seen the sad news that the British Association for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF) has gone into administration, as of 31 July.

The Chair and Trustees of BAAF have had to take immediate action to ensure that some of BAAF’s services helping vulnerable children, their families and those supporting them can continue.

In the face of significant changes and prevailing economic conditions, it has sadly not been possible to sustain the organisation and BAAF closes on July 31 2015.

To secure the future we made an approach to children’s charity Coram and agreed a way forward which will see the transfer of some of BAAF’s functions in England to the Coram Group and to a new and independent entity, CoramBAAF Adoption & Fostering Academy.

CoramBAAF will continue to operate as an independent membership organisation for agencies and individuals in the UK, and the following functions will continue to be provided by CoramBAAF: research, policy and development; membership; professional advice and professional development ; publications; the National Adoption Register for England, the Independent Review Mechanism (England); National Adoption Week, and the Adoption Activity Days.

The Scottish Government has transferred the work of Scotland’s Adoption Register and funded a national adopter information helpline for Scotland to St Andrew’s Children’s Society today. BAAF Northern Ireland and BAAF Wales will continue to trade on a limited basis for a brief period to allow consideration of options to transfer some services and staff to an alternative provider.

This has been a difficult decision for the Board. We appreciate that this is a very challenging time for our dedicated staff and are committed to giving them as much support as is possible during this period.

We would like to thank all our donors, members and partners who, for over 30 years have enabled BAAF to provide services of the highest quality and make a difference to the lives of vulnerable children in care.Your support and involvement will remain crucial as the transition to Coram enables BAAF’s legacy to be taken forward and its core charitable purpose and impact on children’s lives to continue.

For information on the continuation of BAAF services please download a copy of Transferral of BAAF services – who to contact (PDF 40KB)

Even sadder is that many staff say the press release’s claim  to be ‘committed to giving them as much support as is possible’ has so far fell well short of the mark.

It is also interesting that they seem to have been, well taken over, by Coram ( another children’s charity and adoption agency) and a new and independent entity, CoramBAAF Adoption & Fostering Academy has been set up. Coram, started life as the Foundling Hospital in the 1700s after philanthropic sea captain Thomas Coram decided there needed to be somewhere for the homeless and orphaned children of London,  before eventually becoming the Thomas Coram Foundation. Some people will probably question if it as a voluntary adoption agency should now be in charge of the National Adoption Register and The ‘Independent’ Review Mechanism.

Questions also need to be asked of those in charge of BAAF.Anthony Douglas and the board of trustees need to explain why they we so quiet about what was going on: How did things get to this point and why?

The pure lemoncholy enjoyment of time-travelling nonsense

The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster
by Scott Wilbanks
SOURCEBOOKS Landmark
Pub: 4 Aug 2015

Buy from Amazon UK

I expect the word whimsical will be used a lot in reviews of Scott Wilbanks’ debut novel . It is and that should also alert you to the fact that some folks are going to really love this book, whilst others will find things to get annoyed with, which probably make them tut loudly. It is, I’d say, possible to find yourself doing both. It’s a book about five misfits, a magic door and a lot of time travel.

Our main protagonist is Annabelle Aster. Adopted, obsessed with Victorian clothing, she’s also ill and in need of a bone marrow transplant. She also has a Kansas wheat field and a small cabin in her garden that wasn’t there before. She’s not alone.

Elsbeth Grundy, a loner (“She’d been happy once, but a bitterness had set in”) who lives in a cabin in middle of nowhere in Kansas has also awoken to find a strange house in her back garden. “Rising about the wheat in the distance sat a purple and gold mountain of a house.” Riled by this she attempts to knock on the door, but finds she can’t so instead pens a letter and posts it in a brass letter box that sits on the picket fence around the house.”You can imagine my surprise then when I woke up to find that overbearing piece of conceit you might otherwise call a house sitting in my back forty”

Annie too seems unable to knock on the door. But she can see the letter and an exchange begins.

How is this happening? It seems to have been sparked off by the purchase, by Annie, of an antique door. A old newspaper cutting soon reveals the door was a stage prop designed by illusionist David C Abbot, and also the fact that Abbot was murdered. Whilst this clearly happened in Annie’s past, in Elsbeth’s it has yet too. Should they try to interfere, warn him? Will doing so change the future?

This event and the battle for the ownership of the door lies at the heart of this wonderfully enjoyable novel.

I mentioned five misfits at the start. In addition to Annie and Elsbeth we also have Annie’s friend Christian: a handsome, socially awkward stutterer with a heart of gold. A man who spend his entire life with his head in a book. He also suffers from some memory loss as the result of a car crash, and has hallucinations and keeps seeing that face of another man everywhere; Edmond (that man); and a little pickpocket called Cap’n. Add to those the murderous Ambrosius Culler and his henchman Danyer – who cuts off the pinkies of his victims; a gallant suitor, called Nathaniel and David C Abbot and you’ve got yourself the cast of characters that keep you turning the pages

I have to admit early on I wasn’t sure about this book and I was, indeed, verging on tutting. But then I just decided to let myself be swallowed up by the tale in the same way I did when I read The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Night Circus, both books which share things in common with Wilbanks’ novel. Once I did that it was hard not to like this quirky whimsical story. Also how can you not like a man who chooses the make such a huge Wizard of Oz joke by having a house from Kansas appear in Annie’s garden.

Yes, you could argue that the final third of the book tries to crams just too much stuff in, so feels a little rushed and that has a level of coincidences that would make even Paul Auster blush, but the characters are well drawn and likable, the plot buoyant and the overall effect is one of enjoyment. Expect it to sell by the bucket load and for the film rights to be snapped up quickly.


Review copy supplied by Sourcebooks Landmark/Netgalley


PM’s latest attempt to ‘protect children from porn’ doomed to failure

So, Prime Minister David Cameron is apparently determined to introduce age verification mechanisms to restrict under 18s’ access to pornographic websites. This will be popular with the tabloid press who love this kind of crusade. You know the thing, moral outrage about protecting our children from this filth, whilst running newspapers/website versions full of young girls in as few clothes as possible.

Anyway, according the press release from number 10, the PM is prepared to legislate to do so if the industry fails to self regulate.

The PM said: “Our one nation government is working hard to make the internet a safer place for children, the next step in this campaign is to curb access to harmful pornographic content which is currently far too widely available. I want to see age restrictions put into place or these websites will face being shut down.”

I suspect the prefix of ‘one nation government’ will be this season’s ‘hard working families’.

Now, I don’t necessarily think this is bad idea: it is ridiculously easy to access hardcore porn. BUT, even if the PM legislates, he can only target companies based in the UK or actively targeting the UK. Basically he would regulate what would amount to a drop in the ocean of sites producing porn.

No child with a web browser would be prevented from accessing the same levels of porn they might do now. It would be pointless. The PM and the government know this. But, it pays to be seen to do what looks like the right thing, even if the reality is that nothing would really change.

In the meantime we can look forward to the consultation to be launched in the autumn, where the government will seek views on how best to introduce measures that will further restrict under 18s’ access to pornographic websites. Let the pointless exercise begin.

Ishiguru’s giant stirs the memory

The Buried Giant
Kazou Ishiguru

“Yet are you so certain, good mistress, you wish to be free of this mist? Is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?”

What a fascinating writer Kazou Ishiguru is. After a ten year hiatus he returns with his seventh novel, The Buried Giant, and it is – at first glance – a historical fantasy novel…”every so often, an orge might carry off a child into the mist. The people of the day had to be philosophical about such outrages”. We are in a sixth century Britain (?) that has seen King Arthur succeed in uniting the country with the once warring Britons and Saxons now living side-by-side, in harmony; a country of orge’s and dragons, knights and warriors. Is this really the author of Remains of the Day and The Unconsoled ?

It is indeed, but whilst this novel nods to Tolkien, Beowulf, and the Arthurian legend, this novel is a different beast. It contains the kind of action you’d expect in a fantasy genre novel, but here it is relayed matter of factly and without excitement. And that is the point, because that is not what the book is about. This isn’t meant to be competing within the genre. Instead it is a book about memory, trust and deception; love and tenderness; war and vengeance.

The book is essentially the story of a journey (hello Tolkein). In this instance a decision made of a couple of Britons – Axl and Beatrice, and elderly couple – to walk to a nearby village to reunite with their son. He is a son they barely remember but they are sure he must reside at a nearby village and that they will all immediately recognise one another when they are united. This may sound like they are Alzheimer’s suffers but actually it’s the whole of England that is afflicted with a collective amnesia. A mist, literal and figurative, has descended. “It’s queer the way the word’s forgetting people and things from only yesterday and the day before that. Like a sickness come over us all.”

The couple encounter a number of people on their journey, in particular: A boatman, a Saxon warrior called Wistan, a young boy, who has been bitten by a dragon, and old knight, Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur.

The boatman, who we first encounter early on is the key figure. Like most classic depictions he is clearly a man tasked with taking souls to the other side. Most travel alone. Only if a couple can convince him of their devotion will he allow them to travel together.

Axl and Beatrice seem devoted to one another and believe that if all their memories were restored they would surely meet this standard and be allowed to cross together, but they are similarly haunted by a fear that they would fail if the truth of their memories returned. “Axl and I wish to have again the happy moments we shared together. To be robbed of them is as if a thief came in the night and took what’s most precious from us.” They seem to know that they will meet the boatman again.

Their journey becomes entangled with that of Wistan and the boy and a quest to slay a dragon – the possible source of the collective amnesia. But the book asks – are some things better off forgotten?

Can we really just forgive and forget? ‘who knows what will come when quick-tongued men make ancient grievances rhyme with fresh desire for land and conquest’. A look around the world about us shows this statement to be still alive and well.

The Buried Giant is a fascinating, if detached, novel about love and memory. There are moments where the book gets a bit too Lord of the Rings and rather silly, and I’m sure many people will see Tolkein and Shakespeare here and there but I was also reminded on a number of occasions of Jose Saramago and his particular storytelling style – often involved yet totally separate from the story. The Idea of collective memory loss, was one also explored recently in a similar way by Howard Jocobson’s J. Here, though, it is the Saxon’s who are forgetful of the terrible acts of slaughter that had enabled King Arthur to ‘unite’ the country. We know from our recent past that globally there are many nations that have buried dark memories and often with good reason, but it’s also clear how close to the surface things can remain and how quickly friends and neighbours can become murderous enemies.

It’s a book I’ve thought about a lot since finishing it.

“The giant, once buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will proves as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers”