17 Best Books of 2017

I’m not going to be able to follow this pattern forever, but I’m going to run with it for a few more years at least. I read 173 books this year, it’s always tough to make a decision but these were my favourites:

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A Conjuring of Light (Shades of Magic #3)
by V.E. Schwab

The third and final instalment in V.E. Schwab’s fantasy adventure is set in not just one London—but four different parallel dimensions of London. Expect fantastic world-building, action, suspense and vivid characters: Kell, a realm-travelling magician from Red London and Lila, a resilient and resourceful pickpocket from Grey London whose sole ambition in life is to be a pirate. Victoria Schwab is one of my favourite fantasy authors and A Conjuring of Light is a perfect ending to a brilliant series.

 

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Strange the Dreamer (Strange the Dreamer #1)
by Laini Taylor

Definitely worth the wait, Laini’s Taylor new epic fantasy adventure is everything I’d hoped it would be. Lazlo Strange is an abandoned orphan refugee, rescued by monks, who becomes a librarian obsessed with the mystery of the lost city of Weep on the other side of an impassable desert. Until one day an emissary party arrives from the lost city and ‘Strange the Dreamer’ decides that he will do anything he can to join them on their return journey and see the Unseen City for himself. Lazlo is a wonderful character, the story is definitely a tribute to the ‘fools who dream’ and it’s lovely to have a protagonist/saviour who’s not an amazing warrior, but instead is a researcher and storyteller. And of course, there is romance, magic and mystery and everything else you would expect from Laini Taylor. A wonderful escapist adventure.

 

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The Hate U Give
by Angie Thomas

Starr is a sixteen-year-old girl who lives two, deliberately separate lives. At her exclusive school in a wealthy area she is one of the only three black kids in the school and has assigned herself strict rules of behaviour in an attempt to fit in, if not blend in. After school, she goes home to her other life in Garden Heights—a life of poverty, crime, drugs and gangs, but also warmth, family and community support. When her unarmed friend is shot by a white police officer while she is in the car, her worlds collide and she has to decide how to reconcile the two different parts of herself. Read this book. It is not only timely, topical and important but also gripping and engaging and should be required reading in secondary schools.

 

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The Underground Railroad
by Colson Whitehead

The story of Cora, a slave on a Georgia plantation, and her escape via the Underground Railroad, in this case imagined as a literal Underground Railroad, is interspersed with real notices about runaway slaves. Somehow this blending of fact and fiction, the historical reality of slavery with a slightly surreal version of the railroad only makes the horrors more vivid and shocking. A heart-breaking read.

 

 

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People of the Book
by Geraldine Brooks

I loved this, historical fiction with a real literary mystery at its heart, the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah—an illustrated 15th century Jewish prayer book. In Geraldine Brooks’s version the book is rescued from destruction by a Muslim librarian during the Bosnian War and then restored by Hannah Heath, an Australian book conservator, who makes several discoveries in the binding that gives clues to the provenance of the manuscript. While Hannah investigates these traces in the present, we follow the path the Haggadah has taken, geographically and historically. A fascinating insight into the world of book conservation as well as the role books and illustrations have played through history. Brilliantly researched and imagined.

 

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
by Gail Honeyman

Everything in Eleanor Oliphant’s life is scheduled and predictable, she’s entirely self-sufficient and she’s completely fine, until an accident forces her to allow some other people into her tightly-controlled life and everything begins to unravel. Eleanor is a strangely detached and pedantic narrator, so much so that I had to go back and check how old she is because she sounds 50 years older than she actually is. But when you get beyond this facade, this is wonderfully poignant and devastating story.

 

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The One Memory of Flora Banks
by Emily Barr

Flora Banks has anterograde amnesia and has been unable to make new memories since she had a brain tumour removed when she was ten. Her life is limited to the few familiar people and places she knew before her operation and the notes she writes to remind of herself of what has happened each day. Until one day, when she is seventeen, she kisses a boy on a Cornish beach and the memory sticks. Convinced that this boy is the key to her recovery Flora tracks him down to Svalbard and embarks on an adventure that will uncover more than Flora’s lost memories. The narrative throws us right into Flora’s disorientating reality in a way that is thoroughly immersive and utterly compelling. Brilliantly written.

 

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The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1)
by Katherine Arden

Winter is coming… Vasya lives in a small village in the woods in northern Russia. She has grown up hearing stories of the ‘Winter King’, a Russian equivalent of Jack Frost: ‘Frost-demons have no interest in mortal girls wed to mortal men. In the stories, they only come for the wild maiden.’ In addition to her wild wandering in the woods, Vasya has special gifts—she alone can see the household spirits that protect their home and she can talk to horses. When a young, fervent Christian priest arrives in their village and turns people against the old gods and superstitions, he upsets the balance of nature and unwittingly prepares the way for one much more dangerous than the Winter King. Vasya must remain free of societal constraints in order to protect her family and her village from this threat. This story reads like a beautifully woven Russian folk tale—thrillingly atmospheric, lyrical and otherworldly. (I have just started reading the second book in the series, The Girl in the Tower.)

 

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Longbourn
by Jo Baker

‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’ A Downton-style P&P spinoff, Longbourn supplements the original story with a masterfully-woven web of under-stairs action. The story of Mrs Hill the housekeeper, Mr Hill the butler, Sarah and Polly the maids and a mysterious footman (only referred to once in the original) is beautifully imagined with several love stories as unlikely as Elizabeth and Darcy’s and the addition of some horrifically visceral scenes from the British army’s battles in Portugal and Spain. Brilliantly done!

 

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The Empty Grave (Lockwood & Co. #5)
by Jonathan Stroud

I discovered the Lockwood & Co. ghost-hunting series through a Twitter recommendation and flew though all five books. The Empty Grave is the final book and is brilliant ending to a pitch-perfect series, it is just as funny, terrifying and exciting as the other books with a heart-stopping climax that winds the series up beautifully. These books are equally entertaining for children and adults—I loved them, a hugely talented author.

 

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Days Without End
by Sebastian Barry

I was put off reading this book by the title—’Days Without End’ implies interminable boredom, but fortunately this was not the case and I was so glad I finally read it. The story is narrated by Thomas McNulty, an Irish immigrant who signs up for the US army with his friend John Cole in the 1850s. They fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War and somehow in the midst of hardship and trauma, find a way to create a family with each other and find peace. It’s an incredibly moving story.

 

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Turtles All the Way Down
by John Green

This is a more serious book than John Green’s other novels and darker than I expected. It’s written from the perspective of Aza, a teenager who suffers from a severe anxiety disorder. When a corrupt billionaire goes missing Asa’s best friend convinces her, for the sake of the hundred-thousand-dollar reward money, to reconnect with the millionaire’s son, Davis, whom Asa used to know. But the mystery disappearance, a potential romantic relationship with Davis, and her friendship with Daisy are all subordinate to the ever-tightening spiral of Aza’s thoughts and fears. It’s a claustrophobic perspective but very convincingly and authentically done. There seem to be a lot of contemporary YA books these days that use mental illness as a quirky plot device, Turtles All the Way Down delves into the reality of living with mental illness without romanticising it or offering glib solutions. Of course, all this is incorporated into an entertaining story with John Green’s usual warmth and humour.

 

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The Haunting of Hill House
by Shirley Jackson

The quintessential haunted house story: four people, with an interest in the supernatural, undertake to stay in a supposedly haunted house, to observe and document the phenomena. Dr. Montague is in charge of the investigation, Theodora is an artist with supposed psychic powers, Luke Sanderson is heir to the haunted house, but the character who becomes the centre of the story is Eleanor Vance, a repressed young woman who has spent all her life caring for an invalid mother. The four characters all begin to experience strange noises and visions, but the phenomena become increasingly focused on Eleanor herself as she becomes in thrall to the house. Shirley Jackson is brilliant at atmosphere—it is an addictively terrifying read and the house itself is the most sinister and ambiguous character of all of them.

 

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This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor
by Adam Kay

This book made me laugh until I cried—a hilarious and terrifying account of a Junior Doctor that I have recommended to everyone I know, and has cemented my conviction that I could never EVER have been a doctor.

 

 

 

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Alias Grace
by Margaret Atwood

For the box set binge-watcher, if you were captivated by The Handmaid’s Tale, another of Margaret Atwood’s novels, Alias Grace, has been adapted for TV and is now available on Netflix. But of course, you should read the book first. A masterclass in the unreliable narrator, Margaret Atwood recreates the story of ‘Murderess’ Grace Marks through the testimony of others, both real and imagined, and through the story she tells Dr Jordan—a young psychiatrist with a professional interest in her case. Is she a calculating killer, or an innocent victim trapped by unfortunate circumstances, or a madwoman who had no control over her own actions? A wonderfully subtle and sly dissection of a sensational true crime story.

 

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Gnomon
by Nick Harkaway

A hugely ambitious, mind-bending and bewildering novel, Gnomon is set in the near-future under a surveillance society controlled by ‘The System’. Under some circumstances, the surveillance goes even beyond the barrier of skin to extract thoughts and memories from inside the minds of its citizens. Mielikki Neith is investigating the death of a woman called Diana Hunter under one such thought-extraction interrogation. When she replays the extracted information though, she finds the memories of several people within Diana Hunter’s mind—a banker, an alchemist, an artist, and a mysterious character called Gnomon. Neith must unravel the meaning behind all these stories to find the truth of Diana Hunter’s life. At the beginning the story felt a little like Cloud Atlas with its nested narratives, but then it turned into a much wilder, more complex ride—every time I thought I’d figured out what was going on I hit another u-turn. It’s not an easy read (my book club may never forgive me) but it’s worthwhile persevering for the brilliantly devastating conclusion. The issues the author raises about privacy, surveillance and democracy lingered a long time in my mind after the book was finished.

 

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Home Fire
by Kamila Shamsie

A timely and topical retelling of the Greek myth of Antigone, updated to include ISIS recruitment, airport interrogations, and social media in place of the Greek Chorus. Fortunately, I didn’t remember the details of the story so it didn’t ruin the ending for me, though I should have realised, knowing Greek mythology, that it wasn’t going to end well. If you want to read up on the original myth I would also recommend Ali Smith’s The Story of Antigone published as part of the Pushkin Children’s Books Save the Story Series—beautifully illustrated by Laura Paoletti.

16 Best Books of 2016

Writing a post like this on the 15th of December makes me anxious—there are still 16 days left of 2016 in which I could read an incredible book, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Or perhaps I should read only terrible books for the next two weeks. (Any recommendations?) 16 books for 2016 seemed like an appropriate number—according to Goodreads I have read 154 books (so far) this year so this is roughly my top 10%.

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

This is my book of the year—I’m so glad Waterstones agrees with me and that this novel is finally getting some of the recognition it deserves. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies she retreats from London to Essex with her son Francis where they begin to hear rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Somewhere in between AS Byatt and Tracy Chevalier, The Essex Serpent is jam-packed with fascinating characters, atmospheric prose and intriguing plotting. It’s a brilliant book about love and friendship, science and faith. I read it on Kindle but I couldn’t resist buying the stunning blue Waterstones exclusive edition hardback as well.

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The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla

I have emigrated several times (from England to South Africa as a child and vice-versa as an adult) but as a white, English-speaking immigrant you get to blend in a lot more easily in the UK. Your ‘otherness’ is not so clearly signposted on your face. I like to think of myself as an open-minded, empathetic person—curious about other people’s lives, but these essays opened the door to a world I know very little about. This is an important book. It’s not perfect and it’s not exhaustive, but these fifteen essays give a fascinating glimpse into the British black, Asian and minority ethnic experience of living in the UK, storytelling that is essential in creating a diverse and inclusive society—an ideal that seems increasingly under threat.

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Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is structured as a series of short stories based on characters living in a small town in Maine but most, if not all, of the stories feature the titular character, Olive Kitteridge, in some way and we’re able to follow the main events of her life through the book. Many of the stories are about marriage, relationships and loneliness—and there is a sense of melancholy that pervades the book. But there are also occasional glimpses of hope and redemption to make it bearable. It’s a poignant and moving book. My Name is Lucy Barton is Elizabeth Strout’s most recent book, and was on several literary award shortlists this year, but I personally enjoyed Olive Kitteridge more.

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The Power by Naomi Alderman

In the Atwood-esque world of The Power, young girls, and later all women, develop the ability to produce electric shocks with their hands. At first their ability leads to liberation and justice for enslaved women and victims of abuse—but of course, power corrupts, the pendulum swings wildly in the opposite direction and suddenly men are the abused and enslaved ones in this scenario. A brilliantly though-provoking, if thoroughly uncomfortable, read.

 

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The Sellout by Paul Beatty

Whatever you think about cultural appropriation, Lionel Shriver could NOT have written this book. A laugh-out-loud funny and wincingly satirical look at race in ‘post-racial’ America. When his hometown ‘Dickens’, a dodgy neighbourhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles, is literally taken off the map of California, the narrator reinstates racial segregation as a way of putting Dickens back on the map. A brilliantly clever and challenging book.

 

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Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

A strange and eerily beautiful story about family relationships and grief in a style that is part poetry, part stream-of-consciousness and part fable. The crow that arrives, like a profane version of Nanny McPhee, to help this bereaved father and his sons, is sometimes wise and maternally protective, sometimes vulgar and belligerent. Yet somehow the crow is the perfect catalyst to allow the family to move on with their lives. A short book, but a profoundly moving one. The whimsical cousin of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk.

 

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You Took the Last Bus Home by Brian Bilston

Brian Bilston (the Poet Laureate of Twitter) is a master of pithy wordplay and the supreme commander of the pun (my personal favourite is ‘Robert Frost’s Netflix Choice’). Many of the poems made me laugh out loud. He has much to say on the perils contemporary life: autocorrect, procrastinating on Twitter, holiday cottages with no wifi, delivery charges for internet shopping, Black Friday and the unreasonableness of someone wanting to borrow your mobile phone charger. The poems are sometimes Excel spreadsheets, flow charts and scrabble boards. Bilson’s loathing for The Daily Mail and Jeremy Clarkson is a frequent theme. He also has some poignant observations: like ‘At the Intersection’ a moving venn diagram poem on the ways we misunderstand each other, and ‘Chore Play’ – the awkward juxtaposition of seduction with the boring minutiae of married life. Brian Bilson’s poetry is witty, wise and always enjoyable.

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Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

I’ve read many YA fantasy series this year but if I had to pick one it would be Leigh Bardugo’s outstanding Six of Crows duology, Crooked Kingdom is the second book. This is an epic, rollercoaster of a story with a cast of brilliantly flawed and fascinating characters, and also a satisfying end to the duology. It was also great to see some of the characters from the Grisha trilogy pop up in here as well.

 

 

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

I have never read anything by this author before as he primarily writes non-fiction, so I had no idea what to expect. 1746: a mysterious young Englishman, Mr Smith, arrives in the then small town of New York with a bill of credit for £1000 but won’t tell anyone where he got the money from or what he intends to do with it. Golden Hill has a sense of authenticity that suggests a lot of research but it is also completely immersive, tightly-plotted and entertaining. It reminded me a little of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Memory is a black Zimbabwean woman with albinism, on death row for the murder of a white man, Lloyd Hendricks. We don’t know how or why or even if she actually killed him and the details are spun out through the book, from her earliest memories of her childhood with her parents and two sisters, to her life with Lloyd and then later her time in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare and a final heartbreaking revelation. There is a particularly beautiful quote at the end which sums up the book perfectly: ‘To accept that there are no villains in my life, just broken people, trying to heal, stumbling in darkness and breaking each other, to find a way to forgive my father and mother, to forgive Lloyd, to find a path to my own forgiveness.’ Highly recommended – poignant, lyrical and intensely moving.

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The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen is a simply lovely book about an incongruous selection of subjects: marriage, familial relationships, medical advertising blurbs, the FDA approval process, and squirrels. The squirrels are the most important bit of course. Elizabeth McKenzie is like a gentler, more whimsical version of AM Holmes. I particularly enjoyed this bit of wisdom a squirrel imparts to the main character Veblen: ‘I want to meet muckrakers, carousers, the sweet-toothed, and the lion-hearted…’ Don’t we all!

 

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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North

How well can you truly know another person? This book tells the story of Sophie Stark, an indie filmmaker, from the perspective of those people who supposedly knew her best. The result is a collection of stories and reminiscences that build a fragmented, abstract image of an artist, like one of Sophie’s own experimental films. Anna North is a wonderful storyteller and in that her writing did remind me of Jennifer Egan’s. It’s a beautifully written, thought-provoking read. 

 

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The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

The Wayfarer is a tunnelling ship that creates wormhole-type shortcuts through the fabric of space and we meet the mixed-species crew on the day that a new human member, Rosemary, is introduced for the first time. Short afterwards they’re offered their most ambitious job yet – to travel to a distant planet inhabited by a particularly belligerent species and create a tunnel home. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is proper, hardcore sci-fi complete with space travel, weird looking aliens and shedloads of impenetrable sci-fi jargon, but it is also brilliantly inventive, thought-provoking and moving. I couldn’t put it down.

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The Lie Tree by Frances Hardinge

Fourteen-year-old Faith Sunderly is a budding natural scientist. She possesses a passionate curiosity that gets her into trouble but also serves her well as she investigates a suspicious death and explores the properties of the mysterious Lie Tree—a tree that thrives on human lies and yet bears fruit that illuminates truth. It’s rare to find a book with such a good message that is not at all moralistic or preachy. The Lie Tree is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written piece of historical fiction, woven together with dark and mystical elements and a strong feminist sensibility.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Just brilliant: vivid, compelling and honest. I’ve never read anything by this author that I didn’t like, but I found the themes of cultural identity, assimilation and the immigrant experience particularly resonant in this book.

 

 

 

The Vegetarian
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
(translated by Deborah Smith)

Plagued by terrible nightmares, a once dutiful and submissive wife, Yeong-hye, decides to become a vegetarian, seek a more ‘plant-like’ existence and ultimately aspires to become a tree. Dark and disturbing but also hauntingly beautiful and intensely moving. The Vegetarian was also the winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

 

 

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Bonus Book: Swing Time by Zadie Smith
I’m a third of the way through this so I don’t have a conclusive opinion yet. Of course, it’s crammed full of Zadie Smith’s typical wit, insight, and beautiful prose. Damn it! And so far I’m enjoying it more than NW.

 

That’s all folks, working on the ‘Best Bookcovers of 2016’ for my next post.

‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

To do the book justice I have to say first that A Little Life had me thoroughly gripped. Despite it being a very long book, over 700 pages, I read it in two days flat and for those two days I could hardly drag myself away from it. It was also incredibly moving—it made me cry A LOT. The author writes grief, pain and trauma skilfully. The characters, although larger-than-life, are interesting and engaging. I was invested in their stories.

Having said that, it is also a flawed book that would have benefitted from some stringent editing. I wouldn’t take issue with the flaws if it had not been so widely, hyperbolically lauded and shortlisted for every literary prize going.

A Little Life begins with four young men: Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm, fresh out of college and starting out in New York. Hanya Yanagihara’s New York is cloyingly cool: the characters’ extended friendship circle are the Bright Young Things of their generation, they are all minorities, everyone is from an ethnic background, everyone has a fluid, non-specific sexuality—the only group it seems to overlook, weirdly enough, is women. At this point I wondered if it was going to be a ‘Boys’ version of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Sadly not. Initially we get a section from each character’s POV but then abruptly JB and Malcolm are abandoned and we begin to focus primarily on Jude—from his own perspective and from Willem’s perspective. From what we can glean upfront it seems that Jude has a problem with his legs, he is unable to climb stairs, his background is mysterious—the others don’t know anything about his upbringing before college, and it becomes apparent that he is hiding some terrible trauma in his past.

As the story unfolds the author teases us with glimpses of Jude’s traumatic past until the full horror is revealed with a distastefully melodramatic flourish. The author is quite competitive about the extent of Jude’s suffering—Jude St Francis will be THE MOST damaged person you‘ve ever read about, she seems to assert. This authorial sadism is off-putting, I had a similar response to The Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, it made me long for the character’s death to liberate them from the cruel machinations of the writer.

There are a number of strangely convoluted moments in the plotting: some characters and storylines are introduced in retrospect, as though the author had forgotten to add them in earlier. There are also some strange gaps in logic: despite the author’s focus on supportive friendships, Jude’s friends fail him spectacularly when it comes to intervening in his self-destructive behaviour. Despite his very obvious issues he is never medicated or hospitalised and only resorts to counselling very late in the narrative. Jude has a brief reprieve in the clunkingly-signposted section ‘The Happy Years’ before everything, inevitably, goes to hell again.

Hanya Yanagihara has spoken about her desire to write about male friendships and the support of non-traditional families—this is a fantastic theme that I think she should have developed even further in A Little Life. In an age when the idea of the family unit is evolving it is fascinating to look at ‘families’ that are based on something other than a romantic relationship. If she had stuck to her guns on this I think it would have been a better book. Instead she compromises and loses the momentum of this concept.

A Little Life is a moving and an engaging book but it is also a self-conscious book that takes itself very seriously, and, in combination with the author’s relentless persecution of her protagonist, is in danger of slipping into farce.