#DiverseDecember: A Little Life


Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

It may be called a little life, but it’s not a little book at 720 pages.  Nevertheless, although it took me a long time to start reading this book (because I wasn’t sure I could bear the grimness) it didn’t take me longer than 4-5 days to read. The style is very fluid and easy to read, although some scenes were (as people had warned me) very painful. If you want to find out the plot, look elsewhere, as it’s been pretty much covered everywhere. I’ll just give you a few thoughts which struck me as I was reading this.

The first thing that struck me is how much like a fairytale the book is: the ‘baddies’ are really evil, while the ‘goodies’ (Willem, Harold and Andy) are unbelievably patient and loving. Yet there is no happy ending – that is a Disney invention. If we look at Grimm or Andersen, there are few happy endings there too, and much darker twists than Disney wanted to translate onscreen. Just like in Hansel and Gretel or Bluebird, we find here characters which appear at first sight to be benign and then suddenly turn malevolent.

The second striking thing is how much this book represents a paean to friendship and love, to the ‘family of choice’ that you create in your youth and supports you through life. It’s not surprising perhaps that the main group of friends (and most of their subsidiary friends) are all childless – and therefore more likely to be able to visit and be there for each other.  In real life, you’re seldom likely to get this level of support. I’ve got wonderful friendships, but we are scattered all over the world (so perhaps this book is a bit insular in its focus on New York). And even when living within driving distance of each other, my experience has been that you spend more time with people you don’t necessarily like that much but who are ‘conveniently close by’ or ‘parents of children that you can share chores with’ and so on. Practicality over real depth. The really intense, close friendships of ‘heart and minds’ fade away, or are reanimated only very occasionally. Not out of ill will, but simply because people are too busy, too absorbed in their own concerns, too unwilling to go beyond appearances (to be fair, this does appear also in the book), or simply unthinking. It’s the casually callous that will kill you every time – symbolized to a certain extent by JB in the book (the egocentric artist).

little2Third point to make – the world of privilege described in the book: the apartments in NYC, the houses in the countryside or abroad, the dinners in fine restaurants, inviting each other to fancy parties, each one of them successful in their own profession. In a way, it sells the American dream of meritocracy: if you have brains and work hard, you will achieve success? How many middle-aged men who have been to good schools can prove that is not true? (And many more women, no doubt.) How would envy from those who have never quite made it destroy their friendship?

The abuse that Jude suffered is of course horrendous, and the physical and mental consequences are heartbreaking. But I couldn’t help but wonder what happens to the many victims of abuse who do not have the money or support to create a comfortable lifestyle for themselves, pay for medical supervision or transform their homes to cope with disabilities? How many do not find those well-meaning and wealthy people to protect them? At first I was mildly annoyed by this, but then I thought that perhaps that is precisely the point the author wants to make: that even where the façade seems glittery and benign, even for people who seem to have it all, there are scars that run too deep, especially mental scars. So, in many ways, this feels like a critique of the ‘cult of positive thinking’ in American society, the insistence that everything can be ‘fixed’ – through therapy or money or medical intervention.

Fourth element, or perhaps I should have put it first, as it is an entry for #DiverseDecember after all, is about diversity. It’s only lightly touched upon – JB is the most vocal one about race, while for the other friends it seems more of a non-issue. I really enjoyed that aspect of it, especially Jude as the ‘post-man’, post-race, post-sexual, and the fact that the friends belong to all ethnic groups and all sexual persuasions, and that male friendship is a lot more nuanced and touching than we give it credit for.

Author photo from The Guardian.
Author photo from The Guardian.

Finally, stylistically I found this book quite interesting. The author seemed to be breaking all the rules that us debut novelists are taught. A chapter very often starts with a jump in time and a character sitting somewhere just before a momentous event and remembering something from the past. Then we get a flashback – not just a short one, but one that goes on and on for pages, leads to another memory then another, and so on until we forget about the opening setting until we are brought back with a jolt to it twenty pages later, by which point we’ve stopped caring about it. I’m not saying that isn’t how the mind works – and Virginia Woolf or James Joyce do it very successfully – but this is not that kind of book. Not experimental enough. Instead, it piles on both incidents and thoughts, and many of the most important events seem to take place off-stage and are just remembered by the characters. Practices that newbie writers are told to avoid – and yet Yanagihara has been praised for her style, which reminds me a little of Balzac or 19th century Russian novelists. Which goes to show that you need to write as you see fit and critics or teachers be damned!

So I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. It certainly didn’t leave me indifferent, but I cannot say I loved it. What about you? Who has braved reading the book and what did you think of it?

For other views on this book, see Simon Savidge , Naomi Frisby and Lizzi at Little Words .



#DiverseDecember: The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee

My Diverse December reading initiative started with a white-knuckle ride of a novel ‘The Killing Lessons’ by Saul Black (aka Glen Duncan). Well written and scary thought it was, it disappointed me in two respects: the over-the-top Hollywood explosions and violence; and the fact that there was nothing about it at all to signal that it was written by somebody from an ethnic minority. Far be it from me to suggest that BAME writers should stick to BAME themes – but there was no ‘alternative point of view’ to introduce that elusive element of diversity that I was hoping to find in my Diverse December reading.

expatriatesSo it was with some cultural relief that I turned to my second book in the reading initiative: ‘The Expatriates’ by Janice Y.K. Lee, which is about different categories of expats living in Hong Kong. The author herself is of Korean origin, grew up in Hong Kong and studied and worked in the US, so weaves in all these diverse elements in her story.

This is the story of three women living as expats in Hong Kong and how their lives intersect over the course of roughly 18 months. Hilary is a wealthy housewife living in a placid marriage of convenience where very little real communication takes place. She is frustrated by her inability to conceive and toying with the idea of adopting a mixed-race boy from the orphanage, but closes her eyes very deliberately to anything that is less than perfect about the expat life.

David follows her lead, is amenable to what she wants. Their relationship has cooled in the meantime, cooled into politeness and well wishes, but she pushes that thought away, because how many difficult thoughts can one handle in one sunny afternoon?

Margaret used to love her job in landscape architecture, which is nearly impossible to pursue in the cramped neighbourhoods of Hong Kong, so she has devoted herself to her children instead. Yet we sense she is not quite satisfied with her loss of identity, that she remains critical of expat attitudes and is more self-aware than most. The author implies that expats are the new colonialists.

This was what bothered her: the presumption of the expatriates in Hong Kong. It is unspoken, except by the most obnoxious, but it is there, in their actions. They way they loudly demand ice in their drinks or for the AC to be turned up or down or for ‘Diet Coke, not Coke Zero’, as if everyone thought such a distinction was crucial. The idea, so firmly entrenched, that they could be louder, demand more, because they were somehow above – really, better than – the locals. How did that still exist in this day and age? And it was in her.

Finally, Mercy is the child of Korean immigrants to New York, who made her family proud with her Columbia degree, but who has since struggled to secure a job, to find purpose in her life or even a steady boyfriend. She is neither American nor Chinese, and she is often made to feel inferior to her peers.

Hong Kong was supposed to have been a new start – if one could say on needed a new start at the age of twenty-four… People were friendly. She found her cheap apartment and felt that she was getting a foothold. Then the office door was locked one day, the publisher went under and she didn’t have a job again. Then it became a sort of roller-coaster where she had a job, then didn’t, then got another lead… lurching from one near-missed opportunity to another… She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed.

Hong Kong skyline, from Wikipedia.
Hong Kong skyline, from Wikipedia.

Of course, we soon realise that there is something deeper going on underneath all this vague malaise. Margaret’s life has been touched by tragedy and she has become numb and detached. Mercy has involuntarily played a part in that tragedy and she is about to impact upon Hilary’s life as well. The balletic moves that the author imposes upon her characters, how they dance in and out of each other’s conscience and line of sight, how they change and develop (in a rather mechanical and rushed way towards the end) reminded me of soap operas at times. The plot is far less interesting than the wry, witty, sometimes acerbic observations of expat life, the often patronising encounters between expats and locals, and the subtle hierarchy between the different ‘types’ of expats (and how the Americans end up huddling together). The artificial setting and the lifestyle of the arid expat bubble are described to perfection, but I’d have liked to find out more about secondary characters like Chinese Olivia or supermom Frannie, who was seen crying in her car once. All too frequently the most interesting aspects happen ‘off-stage’, are not part of the main story and are recounted in anecdotal fashion, rather like in a magazine article (the author used to be a journalist on women’s magazines, and this sometimes shows in her breezy style).

This is the Hong Kong curse that expat housewives talk about in hushed voices: the man who takes to Hong Kong the wrong way. He moves from an egalitarian American society, where he’s supposed to take out the trash every day and help with the dinner dishes, to a place where women cater to his every desire – a secretary who anticipates his needs before he does, a servant in the house who brings him his espresso just the way he likes it… – and the local population is not as sassy with the comebacks as where he came from… The rental buildings are littered with the ghosts of ruined marriages… a man lost to the paid hostesses who found his every utterance completely fascinating… a welcome relief from the woman he faces at home, complaining about his travel, his schedule, his lack of time with the kids. So why not change it up? Why not trade up? Or down, and have some fun?

…the man just starts his life anew, with a younger model of a wife, sometimes a slightly smaller apartment, but his new life pretty quickly looks like his old one… To add insult to injury, in his fervor not to mess things up again… when he has more children, he vows to really do things right this time, so he pitches in to an unimaginable extent, does more with the kids… so the new family gets the benefit of this new and improved man, and the old family gets to see it all.

Author photo fro hk-magazine.com
Author photo from hk-magazine.com

I’ve quoted somewhat extensively from this, because there is much I recognise in the shallow, smug and insular society she describes, although Geneva is less extreme than some other, more isolated locations. The expat community forms the backdrop to the crime novel that I’m currently working on, so I was paying close attention to the ‘show vs. tell’ ratio. I couldn’t help feeling that this erred a little on the ‘tell’ side of the spectrum.

The sterile and claustrophobic environment, the fact that everyone seems to know everyone else within the English-speaking community, can make tensions run high and unpleasant secrets will be exposed at the most inconvenient of times. I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if there had been a murder or two! The conclusion left me nonplussed: if these women could only forgive each other and bond over that most marvellous achievement of all – motherhood – everything will be all right. This felt too facile and rushed a conclusion, when everything leading up to it had shown that the reality is far more complex and nuanced than that.

But, overall, an entertaining book providing a window into a world far removed from the everyday most of us experience. I would recommend it to anyone contemplating a move to Hong Kong or elsewhere as a ‘trailing spouse’ – although, be warned, it might put you off it for good! I think I might also take a look at the author’s debut novel The Piano Teacher, set in Hong Kong in the 1940s/50s, a period of political and social turmoil.


Why I Plan to Do Diverse December Too

I’ve already committed to reducing the number of books on my Netgalley shelves in December. I’ve been monstrously greedy throughout the year and now need to be munching on my existing goodies.

However, Naomi Frisby makes a lot of sense when she talks about her reasons for the Diverse December initiative, as does Dan. So I will do my best to participate in this initiative as well, since unconscious bias is always with us, no matter how ‘liberal’ and ‘socially aware’ we like to think we are.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very international environment. Although the overseas English school I attended as a child included more than your fair share of children from privileged (moneyed, diplomatic, well-educated) backgrounds, at least it contained all colours and religions as well. So I’ve never been able to resort to glib generalisations about people based on their skin tone, nationality or ethnic group. And yet…

I too did the Harvard University’s Implicit Association test for skin colour and found that I had a slight preference for lighter skin tones. But I need look no further than among my group of friends to know that, although they are a cosmopolitan crowd, not that many of them are non-white.

Virtual bookshelves from trademarksandbrandsonline.com
Virtual bookshelves from trademarksandbrandsonline.com

So let me search among my Netgalley shelves and see what BAME writers I can find there. A bit shameful, really. Of the 45 books currently on my shelf, only 5 fit the criteria.

  1. The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee – a Korean growing up in Hong Kong
  2. The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra – Algerian writer working largely in France
  3. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Japanese-Hawaiian in US
  4. The Killing Lessons by Saul Black – pseudonym of Glen Duncan, Anglo-Indian writer growing up in Bolton – the only non-white child at his school.
  5. The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura – OK, I’m clutching at straws here, as this is a Japanese author living and writing in Japan, so never part of an oppressed minority.

If I were to include ‘other white’ immigrants (a category in which I always have to put myself at the census), I could also read:

  1. Expulsion and Other Stories by Marina Sonkina – Russian living in Canada
  2. Forty One by Lesia Daria – of Ukrainian origin (? – not entirely sure)

Not a great proportion, but it’s a start for this month… And I may sneak in some other reads from beyond those virtual shelves!