‘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.

A Riot of Dismemberment – ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies begins with one of the most haunting and arresting openings I have ever read:

His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England  stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws. (…) All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment, fur and feather flying…

The idea that Cromwell names his falcons after his dead wife and daughters is poignant; it is a reminder of Cromwell’s humanity and the personal tragedy he has suffered, but there is also something portentous and disturbing about this unlikely coupling, a foreshadowing of the carnage to come. It will be a narrative fraught with tension, ever teetering on the edge of disaster, the inevitability of death ebbing and flowing with the treacherous currents of the Henry VIII’s court.

Bring Up the Bodies begins where the previous book left off—at Wolf Hall, the seat of the Seymour family. Whereas the scope of Wolf Hall was vast, spanning thirty-five years, the focus of the second book is significantly narrowed—it deals with the events of just one year. It is an eventful year. Anne Boleyn seems to be unable to give the King the son and heir he desperately needs, her enemies at court are plotting to have her removed and the King himself is attracted to the virtuous Jane Seymour. Cromwell must find a way to remove Anne to make way for Jane and he must contrive to do it at the right moment—when the King has finally made up his mind to do it but not before. Cromwell must tread carefully to fulfil the will of the King while also protecting his own place at court and settling some personal scores—namely the contemptuous treatment of his own mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, by certain people during the period of Wolsey’s downfall and disgrace.

Thomas Cromwell has historically been overshadowed by the pious Thomas More—he features as the villain of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, ruthless, mercenary & relentlessly ambitious—but Mantel’s Cromwell is an intriguingly nuanced character. She reminds us of the paradigm of writing about historical figures, we don’t know their inner motivations—we only know how they are reported by others, the results of their actions. Mantel doesn’t attempt to render Cromwell pure and noble but she does draw a clear distinction between the public perception of him and what he might have actually been like:

When he saw the portrait finished he said, ‘Christ, I look like a murderer’; and his son Gregory said, didn’t you know?

Mantel’s Cromwell is clever and calculating; he uses his fearsome reputation to his advantage, he has faultless recall for facts and figures and similarly he never forgives a personal slight. But he is also fiercely loyal to the King, a generous and compassionate friend, sometimes lonely, sometimes insecure and self-doubting. His lowly birth means that his advancement in court is harder won and provides a constant excuse for the nobility to dislike and distrust him. Mantel implies that his theological standpoint is a result of his own reading and reflection and involves faith, not just politics. He works first for the good of the King—for the peace and stability of the Kingdom, and if there is personal advancement to be had and scores to settle in the process he will contrive to accomplish those too; he is a multi-tasker. He is not a sympathetic character but we are on his side.

It is important to define what differentiates Mantel from Philippa Gregory; not to disparage Philippa Gregory but to understand why Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies transcend the historical fiction genre. Gregory’s novels have a cinematic quality; they are staged, scenes are set, eras are evoked and plot-lines are revealed to the audience at opportune moments. Mantel’s communication is more intense and more direct—Tudor reality TV if you will. We are in a time capsule—transported back in time to witness Cromwell’s life, not just the edited highlights of his life. We are in his shoes and we can smell the leather. Mantel uses contemporary literary techniques to create this sense of immediacy and to build tension. The story is told in the present tense, from Cromwell’s perspective, primarily in third person and occasionally shifting into first person. One of the criticisms levelled at Wolf Hall was that this perspective is confusing; one would have to presume that whenever ‘he’ was mentioned, ‘he’ was Cromwell. In this book she seems to try to address this confusion by frequently clarifying with ‘he, Cromwell,’ which seemed a bit awkward. Personally I found the ambiguity less distracting than the intrusive mention of his name.

In my opinion Bring Up the Bodies surpasses Wolf Hall. The narrower scope allows us an intimacy with Cromwell that couldn’t be achieved within the epic proportions of Wolf Hall. Perhaps this is an unfair comparison though as the emotional weight of Bring Up the Bodies depends on the ground laid in Wolf Hall. It seems unlikely that the sequel will also win the Booker Prize, however much it might deserve it, but Bring Up the Bodies hardly requires the validation. The historical details are richly textured and reeking of authenticity, the prose is assured and evocative and Thomas Cromwell himself is endlessly fascinating. It is a novel to savour and to saturate yourself in. I’m looking forward to the final instalment.

This review was first published on the Writers’ Hub.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger – Oil on oak panel (1532 – 1533)