GREAT READS FOR FEBRUARY, 2016
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara
This story is a heart-breaker. And it could break wrists,too, from its size
and weight if the reader is tackling a hard copy, for Ms Yanagihara has constructed a giant of a novel in all respects. There are no happy endings here: its themes are horrifying and indescribably sad, but there is also much to celebrate in this huge opus; spare, beautiful prose, wonderful characters and an epic story that never flags: what more could a reader want?
Four young men, fast friends and Ivy League graduates, are establishing themselves in New York, city of ambition and mecca for all those aspiring to carve out a reputation in the arts and commerce. Malcom Irvine, lucky scion of a rich family, has trained to be an architect and thanks to his parents’ wealth, fully expects to achieve eventual success. Jean-Baptiste Marion, (JB) of Haitian origin, is the group’s aspiring artist; he makes up for his lack of money by having a larger-than-life personality which endears him to his friends but his mouth sometimes gets him into trouble. Willem Ragnarsson, Wyoming import and like all handsome waiters, an aspiring actor – ‘a kind boy who grew into a kind man’, is flatmate of Jude St. Francis, law graduate, and the star of the group – because he is so gifted he could have chosen a career as a mathematician, a classical pianist, or an opera singer: instead he has decided on the law.
Everybody loves Jude; he is kind and loyal, generous to a fault – but he has huge secrets. He wears long-sleeved shirts, always, even when it is high summer. No-one has ever seen him without clothes; he walks with a pronounced limp and at times appears to be in severe pain. He refuses to discuss his origins and expertly fobs off those who enquire. Jude is a mystery to all and his friends in particular, but for the most part (JB being the noisy exception) they respect his privacy and feel that eventually he will reveal more about himself.
But he never does. As the years pass, the friends establish themselves in their various careers, becoming exactly what they want to be, achieving success beyond all expectations, and Willem has found fame as a movie star - which is thrilling, but he can’t help thinking that his very self is disappearing, overwhelmed by the many different ‘selves’ he is hired to play. His most concrete reality is his friendship with Jude, most treasured companion and the person who needs him most, for Jude, whose success in law is awe inspiring, has many demons that seem intent on consuming him - but he still won’t seek help or talk about his past, or why his body is covered with scars.
Jude’s life, which he considers worthless and little is a mighty achievement against terrible odds. This is a story about love; the many permutations of it and the enormous cruelties and injustices committed in its name. Ms Yanigahara’s characters personify every variation and do her justice on every page. What a tour de force she has created: anyone who reads this will not forget it easily. With this massive master work she has created a major place for herself in contemporary American literature. SIX STARS!!
The Secret Chord, by Geraldine Brooks
Biblical King David, mighty warrior of Judah and bringer of lasting unity to the tribes of Israel; founder of The City of David called Jerusalem, yet still a man of the people, able to commune intimately with the most lowly and gain their permanent loyalty; David, kingly in every way, blessed with strength and beauty and possessed of a divine gift to compose and perform celestial music with voice and harp; David, anointed by The Name as the ruler to establish and lead a powerful empire.
David, ruthless strategist and schemer for his own ends, a killing machine in battle when the bloodlust is upon him, and able to perform the most bloodthirsty and terrible crimes ‘because it was necessary’; David, lover of Jonathan but married to Jonathan's sister, the first of a long line of wives, all necessary to make sons. Pulitzer Prizewinning author Geraldine Brooks brings David’s life and times to stark reality, capturing the reader from the first page to the last as she writes with elegance and grace of a man who was touched by The Divine, a man whose name has reverberated throughout history; whose legend is as strong as ever.
The device of having someone humble narrate a history of his master is not new, but Ms Brooks uses it to great effect when she introduces Natan, David’s Prophet to tell their story. Natan is ten years old and tending his father’s sheep when he meets David, outlawed by King Saul, who is in the depths of madness. David politely requests that Natan’s father give them supplies, a request that is furiously refused, to the eternal consternation of Natan’s village, for it is soon laid waste by David’s killers. As Natan stands in his father’s blood he is seized by a voice not his own, a voice that promises David ‘a throne, an empire and a line that would never fail throughout the generations.’ And Natan’s path is also clear: he must make his life for better or worse, with David, as a receptacle for the mighty voice which speaks through him whenever The Name wishes pronounce judgement.
Through the years Natan observes David’s triumphs – and his sins; the lust David could not control for Bathsheba, wife of Uriah, one of his most loyal and principled commanders: to have her David engineers Uriah’s murder, arranged as a convenient death on the battlefield. Natan watches with growing horror as David’s indulgence and spoiling of his beloved sons culminates in incest, rape and fratricide – all seen in awful visions by David’s prophet, who is unable to prevent any of it happening.
The Name is exacting retribution for David’s hubris. It is time to make him repent.
And so he does, but there are more hard lessons to learn, especially involving the treachery of his sons, each vying for the kingship: Natan records it all; his master’s history, every last act, good and bad. Ms Brook has done marvellous justice to a towering historical figure, taking the reader to The Land of the Bible, Land of Milk and Honey, Land of the Fathers, and Land of David, Father of a Line that never failed, throughout the Generations. This is a great book. SIX STARS!!!