**This piece contains spoilers**
I recently started reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara because I didn’t think it was a traumatising book where awful things happen to small children *pause for laughter*.
I had initially assumed that, it being a very long book written by someone with a complicated-sounding name, that it would be about a rough childhood in a rough part of the world and, you know, I’ve had quite enough of reading miserable books where someone has an awful time.
But then I read a vague summary of the Little Life plot and said to myself: “I am wrong! I am borderline racist! This is not a traumatising book where awful things happen to small children! This is a perfectly urbane book about four young dudes in New York. And everyone says it’s brilliant.”
Then – jokes on me! – it turned out to be the most traumatising of all traumatising books ever written. It’s not a book about child abuse. It’s the book about child abuse.
Why did I keep reading? I honestly don’t know. I think I kept expecting it to turn into the urbane and witty comedy of manners I had been expecting. Like when I went to Gary Barlow’s book party by mistake and persisted in thinking that it was Derren Brown’s book party (which was next door) even after Gary Barlow came up to me and went “‘Iya are you from the Times?” I was just standing there going “Wow I didn’t realised Gary Barlow and Derren Brown were such good friends!”
I abandoned A Little Life at about 89% when the hero’s best friend/boyfriend/guardian angel is squashed by a lorry in the most hugely unlikely and annoying accident since thingy got run over in One Day. I mean FUCKS SAKE the car accident is just the most stupid, stupid and lazy trope in novel-writing.
“Ugh,” I said to no-one in particular, “I’m not reading this anymore. I don’t like it.”
I just… I mean… why has this woman written a book like this? It’s so fucked and weird. She’s a great writer but why, why, why has she chosen this subject? And you know, it’s not even a subject actually, because the awful shit that happens is not exactly a thing happening to children all over the world.
Yes there is child abuse, yes there is enforced child prostitution, yes there are paedophiles, yes there are people living in constant pain. Yes people cut themselves. Yes loved ones get squashed by lorries. Yes there are evil monks and sadistic architects. Yes to all of that. But why all at the same time, all in one story? Why make it all happen to one person?
And also why all the nauseating, sentimental puke later one? Why does Jude, our hero, only encounter people who are either complete evil monsters who want to buttrape him or saints who slobber over him like fawning shop assistants? It’s so clumsy and irritating. And, you know? A bit fucking psychotic, like how most tyrants and despots always also have a strong sentimental streak and weep over sick puppies, while also being happy to wipe out entire tribes/races.
Look, don’t listen to me. Most people love this book and think it’s a masterpiece. I’m not saying it’s not a masterpiece, I’m just saying that I DON’T WANT TO FUCKING READ ABOUT BUTTRAPE AND CHILD ABUSE. Yanagihara has said that she doesn’t think that readers want to be a”babied”. Me, mate – me: I want to be babied. Thank you.
Anyway I removed A Little Life from my Kindle – I was that fed up with it, didn’t give a fuck what happened next, bored with reading about shit thing after shit thing that happens to this poor bastard – and took to Twitter to find something else to read.
Because the main reason I had been persisting with this book was because to have a book on the go is life-changing. I spend a lot of time with my kids when they need minding but don’t need actual interaction – I am living the dream, ladies – and even I reach the limits of what I can do on my phone in these hours. It’s so much better to be reading a book.
Rather than posing Twitter the question: “I need a new book to read”, to which you mostly get suggestions to read A Little Life, I asked for a mild-mannered book, style-heavy, not a comedy (there are enough jokes in my house without needing to seek out more in a book), and no child abuse if possible.
Twitter went nuts – I got tens of recommendations. So I have started on the Cazalet series by Elizabeth Jane Howard, which I’ve never even heard of I’m such a philistine and so far I am enjoying it enormously. I just hope that the Second World War doesn’t come along and ruin all the fun. But don’t worry, I’ve learned my lesson: one whiff of a sad baby and I’m out of there.
dr P says
I know they say not to judge a book by its cover but the black and white picture of a grimacing man on the front should have a big red flag. The light years has pale background and pretty flowers all around it, hopefully the book will be equally harmless!
Emma Renton says
Love the Cazalets. One of my all time favourite series. Along with Anthony Powells ‘Dance to the Music of Time’ series.
I recently got all my late mother’s Cazalet books and they’re a joy to read. You’re transported back to a time where everything is lovely and nothing evil and sinister happens to them or their children.
I don’t want to read that book.There’s been much publicity and why read a book that’s depressing and miserable only to feel depressed and miserable.
I steer well clear of anything Irish with kids too…
I LOVE the Cazalet Chronicles. The last one wasn’t quite as good but still very readable.
Completely with you on this. Had so many recommendations for this book, but luckily before I clicked on it someone described it as misery lit dressed up so I was able to dodge it. I’m glad you read 89% though because very funny review. I started The Light Years last year but got bored and put it down, have been meaning to pick it up again, though. I liked the style (felt like Life After Life perhaps paid homage to it a bit) but did start to find the goings on got a bit dull. I’ve started reading a lot again this year as the kids can amuse themselves better and I only have one at home, and it is a total game changer. I start practically fetishing the moment I can return to it, and picturing the chair and the cup of tea that might go with it. Being between books is, conversely, hellish. My best reads recently were The Luminaries, HHhH (Nazism, so obviously upsetting, but also utterly brilliant), Where’d You Go Bernadette and True Grit.
I also think you need to be in your thirties before you can get into the Cazalets. I tried when I was younger but was too young and feckless to get into it.
Personally I just want to write the perfect book, or in fact any book. As it is, I barely write my own blog as I read yours instead, and have two kids who I’m so crap at looking after that I got a lecturing missive from the nanny about nutritious snacks.
Kristy Ward says
Because of your weekend tweet, I’ve now got the first Cazalet book arriving today (thanks Amazon Prime!), but tonight is book club and I fear that some clever chick will recommend “A Little Life” and I shall despair. Also ordered “The Secret River” by Kate Grenville after hearing her on Radio 4 on Sunday, though it doesn’t sound terribly uplifting.
Thanks for the warning – I can’t cope with anything vaguely traumatic book wise…
The Cazalet books are perfect, unfashionable comfort reading I think. EJH is a good enough writer to avoid the usual annoying author-y tics, there are enough characters to entertain and not too many so as to confuse and even though stuff happens (not a spoiler, because you know, 20th century) it somehow does so in a thoroughly not upsetting way. And there is book after book so the process of reading one every now and again continues pleasantly for years. I do hope you enjoy. And by the way, Where’d You Go Bernadette (see comment above) is glorious and FUNNY especially if one is a bit neurotic and quite rude to people. (ie me. Wouldn’t dream of suggesting anyone else is).
You will love the Cazalet books – my boss, who is VERY highbrow, called the series high class trash, which I felt was rather unfair. I read all of them on the train going to visit friends and associate them with that excitement, jolliness and old-fashioned thrill of rail travel (provided you don’t sit near someone eating smelly food talking noisily on their phone!). Enjoy and revel! Idyllic descriptions of England back in the day.
Another big Cazalets fan. Elizabeth Jane Howard was an interesting lady and her memoir (Slipstream) is also well worth a read.
Thanks for that – I am a Kingsley Amis fan so will read this xx
that came out wrong, I mean, I am a kingsley amis fan, so this will be extra interesting
Lisa T says
The Cazalet books are delicious. You are in for a treat. As well as being wonderful at doing people she is also good on houses, clothes, food etc. The lit agency I used to work for represented her and she was a fascinating woman…..
I join everyone else in endorsing the Cazalet Chronicles. I’ve come late to them (currently on the 4th one) and can’t believe it’s taken me so long. They are simply a wonderful read.
I too was totally ambushed by A Little Life and, having read it to the end, can assure you that it doesn’t get any less bleak. Another commenter mentioned the cover being a warning – I read the hardcover which has NO SUCH GRIMACING WARNING, just a cheery staircase (she says hollowly, now knowing where a staircase crops up in teh story). I haven’t found something as joyless since The Casual Vacancy, but this is so, so much worse. I thought it was well written, and Yanigahara did talk about wanting to turn the dial up so it was impossibly intense – but it was too tough to read. (Fair warning: do not read Narrow Road to the Bleak North which, though war not child abuse, is similarly unbearable.)
I happen to have reviewed both of the books you mention in case you’re interested:
https://roomofjoy.wordpress.com/2014/03/08/the-light-years (I found it a bit vanilla but I read 2 more in the series so that speaks for itself).
Top recommendations for a charming light read: Crooked Heart and The Improbability of Love. And The Enchanted April is the most charming book of all time if you’re feeling supremely frothy.
I’ve just started the Cazalet series too and am loving it…got that real 30s novel vibe (although it’s not). Turning out to be much more than displacement activity from half finished Anna Karenina which is glaring at me from my bedside table.
Henry Phillips (@HenryP) says
The last 11% is no better.
There’s something very wrong if your heart sinks like a stone when you discover that the main character has miraculously survived a suicide attempt.
Misery porn (which is all horrid books about child abuse are) annoy me so much because they PRETEND to be high literature by virtue of their subject matter. There are so many books that are guilty of it- mention bum rape/ the holocaust or childhood abuse and you don’t need to write nicely. And then annoying people find the book moving or insightful.
Thanks – this book sounds like my worst nightmare so will give it a wide berth. I haven’t read the Cazalets (on my list) but have just finished reading a book called Loungbourn which you might like (Pride and Prejudice fan fiction done well). Also The Priory by Dorothy Whipple fits your criteria and was un-putdownable.
Thank you Cesca xxx
Oh I am just so jealous you haven’t read the Cazalets yet. They are delicious and so comforting. Got me through a really horrible sickie pregnancy, newborn, husband away a lot phase.
Just finished the Cazalets! Devoured in one obsessive gulp. Strangely, as I scrolled down your post I was thinking of recommending Elizabeth Jane Howard as an antidote to what you had been reading. Glad other people felt the same way.
I second Slipstream, but would leave it until you’ve finished all the Cazalet Chronicles you care to read; many of the girls’ experiences in the Chronicles were based on Howard’s childhood/early adulthood, and thus the memoir contains some spoilers.
There is child abuse in the Cazalets!! In the first book? But not hideous, graphic, unpleasant scenes. In fact, I don’t think it really comes to ahead until towards the end of the saga. Bar that, I adore these books and read for comfort during traumatic times!
I loved all the Cazalet books (altho agree that the last, latterly written, wasn’t quite as good) and they got me through a terrible time in Brussels so will always have a place in my heart.
But Slipstream annoyed me. A lot of name dropping, which was kind of interesting but irritating after a while, and I was retrospectively disappointed in Howard when I found that she had used a lot of real experience in the Cazalet books – like, um, dunno how to explain this… It was disappointing that she was just rehashing things she remembered rather than coming up with plot and being inventive? But don’t let that put you off. I didn’t reach the Amis bit before I cried off, which I am sure is genuinely interesting.
I second The Luminaries (which is huge so get it on Kindle), also The Goldfinch if you haven’t read it like everyone else on the planet seemed to when it first came out. Without wishing to give spoilers, there’s a bit of a druggy bit that normally makes me run for the hils (bad teen experience) so for me the fact that I persevered shows how bloody good it was. The woman knows how to write about art.
I’m also a huge fan of v cheap or free Kindle books that I wouldn’t otherwise pick up. White Truffles in Winter, The President’s Hat, and The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman are all excellent books that I wouldn’t have known about were it not for my quest to spend as little as possible on something that doesn’t exist (if you see what I mean).
I read A Little Life on a weeks holiday to lanzarote. Not sure I enjoyed it but couldn’t stop reading! If Jude didn’t keep saying ‘I’m sorry’!’ It would only be 200 pages long!!
Love the Cazalets…there is one kiss which would fit into the child abuse bit (nb not a plot spoiler, just saying so you know given the reason you are reading them!). X
I chucked One Day in the bin when I got to the car crash. I usually donate to a charity shop, but I didn’t want some other poor person wasting their time on that book!!
Totally agree, back when I had a job I had to read lots about horrible things happening to people, in real life, and it was horrific. Sometimes people’s life stories, sometimes cold hard facts and reports and statistics, but always sad and moving and upsetting. I did it for a good reason and it was real life and that’s that, but why people would want to make that kind of thing up/ read it for pleasure is completely beyond me. I asked recently for book recommendations to my Facebook friends, specifying ‘nothing traumatic that will haunt my dreams for years to come’ and minimum 75% of the recommendations were for books like that. What is wrong with people? I’m going to look into these Cazalet books. Elaine x
Elaine yes WHAT is wrong with people? I’m still trying to work it out babez xx
That bit in One Day-Terrible. Cycling along..la la la….Boom.Curtains. I was so sure it was going to be a happy ending!
How can I never have heard of The Cazalets? I’m in need to a feel good series, and it sounds perfect. One word of warning on the Luminaries – it is fantastic but it’s a ‘you need to concentrate’ kind of book. So it sits, half read on my book shelf, indefinitely…
I love and adore the Cazalet chronicles. Miss Milliment is my best ever character and, I think, possible soul twin. I also can’t bear anything with children being hurt – there isn’t anything too disturbing in Cazalets, although there are some very sad moments.
I’ve just finished reading Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty – really enjoyed it – it’s light and readable but clever. I recommend it. And Liane Moriarty is a cool name.
I guess I’m alone in having loved this book. (I was certainly alone at my book club, where everyone else chucked wine at me and screeched at me that i was INSANE.) I just found it gripping. Mind you, I was on “holiday” with my children and had no childcare and the only escape I had was to say “I have to go read this for book club and it’s fourteen thousand pages long, sorry” which may have coloured my judgement somewhat. I *did* have to skip over most of the child abuse bits, and I *did* find some of it just a bit too far-fetched (oh yes, I know, I’m going to suddenly become gay because I just love Jude SO MUCH), but I loved the writing and the insights into friendship, even if it was all a bit self-indulgent New Yorky-ness. So, more spoiler, he eventually does succeed in topping himself (everyone at my book club said HURRAH ABOUT TIME) Also, if you want to feel even more perturbed than you already do, you should google “what is the photo of the cover of A Little Life of?”. Which even I thought was a bit fucking weird.
TextPat you’re absolutely entitled to have enjoyed the book. I enjoyed a lot of it, too. I’m going to google the cover photo now.
Mary-Anne Borrowdale says
Esther, I haven’t read EJH but have this year fallen hard for The Forsyte Saga by Galsworthy. Absolutely brilliant C19 soap. Well-written, and very true to life. Dive in, an easy and gripping read even when the youngsters are bounding about.
Someone bought be A Little Life AS A GIFT. Cazalets are a joy. Wished they would go on forever. Enjoy!