Tuesday, October 20, 2015

A Little Life
The People in the Trees

by Hanya Yanagihara

I absolutely loved A Little Life. The story is really intense and sad, but the characters are so well-written. It's on the long side, but I read it pretty quickly; I really cared about the characters and wanted to know what would happen. A lot of bad things happen to good people in this book, so overall it's rather bleak. You will feel as if you've been gut-punched more than once.

One review I saw talked about the author straining credulity with how much trauma can be endured by one person, how long that person can cling to his suffering without breaking, and how many people around him can remain so open and caring for so long in the face of his refusal to heal. All true, but the author pushes everyone — characters and readers alike — to a point at which horrible seems somehow normal, which is an interesting feat to attempt.

I've described A Little Life as veering into Oprah's book club levels of tragedy, and at times I felt as if the author were piling on the traumas as a cheap or lazy way of firing the reader's emotions. Normally that would turn me off, but it's one of my top reads so far in 2015. It's also short-listed for a bunch of different awards, so I'm not the only one.

On the other hand... The People in the Trees came out in 2013, to some acclaim. I remember reading the jacket copy and not being into it. I reconsidered in light of how much I loved A Little Life, to my chagrin. No likable characters are in this book: the narrator of the wrap-around story (a foreword and afterword to the "memoir" that constitutes the bulk of the book) is underdeveloped and, frankly, baffling. The rest of the story is tightly focused on a monster of a character who's not even appealing in the way a dark anti-hero could be. The only thing that kept me reading was the slim hope that he might not be so despicable after all. No such luck.

I had wondered, with a bit of unease, while reading A Little Life what made the author come up with such twisted tortures for its main character. After reading The People in the Trees, I seriously asked myself what the hell is wrong with this lady? Little bit of a spoiler: don't read either of these if child sexual abuse is a "trigger" for you.

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