Monthly Archive for January, 2017

It’s a long story

NWN Durham Reading Group’s first meeting of 2017 presented a challenge as we surfaced from our yuletide excesses to discuss our Christmas read, ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara. Despite the promise of the title it is not a short novel, in fact it is over 700 pages and not an easy subject matter to digest alongside turkey and Christmas pudding. Fortunately, the Durham group can face most challenges head on and the majority present had completed reading the book.

pic 1I was initially seduced by the authors intriguing characterizations and description of a group of accomplished young men who meet at college and form enduring friendships. One of them, Jude, is reticent and secretive about his past, unable to share in childhood reminiscence. As another reader commented, this almost had echoes of Donna Tart and ‘The Secret History’. The author paints a convincing picture of how Jude succeeds in forming relationships without his own self-revelation. Carefully he encourages friends to talk of themselves and deflects their questions without antagonising them. We become curious as to how all their lives will unfold as they navigate careers and relationships. The narrator focuses on their individual emerging identities and the pain of forming identities in their social groupings amongst artists, actors, architects and lawyers. There are numerous references to the pressures imposed by academic, artistic and professional subcultures as each young man grapples with uncertainty, shame and humiliation in his circumstances, whatever his background. Even wealthy parents can be a source of shame for a son who cannot support himself financially, like Malcolm. Choices of employment are subject to the harsh scrutiny of peers, carelessly disapproving of work that does not pursue the true ideals of artists and right thinking people. Corporate sell out is despised. The descriptive detail in this first 200 pages is vivid, skilful and engaging, such as JB’s journey to his studio: –

The other aspect of those weekday-evening trips he loved was the light itself; how it filled the train like something living as the cars rattled across the bridge, how it washed the weariness from his seatmates faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country… watch that kind light suffuse the car like syrup…

The description of JB’s painting and defiance of the art world’s norms is fascinating. At times, the author’s portrayal of artists is astute: –

somewhere inside you, whether you were making out with someone in a bar or having dinner with your friends, was always your canvas, its shapes and possibilities floating embryonically behind your pupils…

pic 2As the narrative progresses, however and we realise that the main story is Jude, his identity as a victim and relentless self -harming I rapidly lost interest with the repetitive nature of the material. I yearned for emotional depth and intriguing plot as I dutifully read the book through. I was repulsed by the emphasis on the details of the self-harming and the predominance of victimhood. Others in the group, however, remained gripped by the intrigue of the relationships and the characters throughout. For several readers, it was a greatly praised novel. Indeed, it came with great expectations arising from its numerous glittering reviews and Booker prize shortlisting for 2015.

We mainly debated the nature of Jude’s relationships. How believable were his relationships with Harold and with Willem? Why did Harold adopt him as an adult? What motivated Willem to be Jude’s carer, and eventually his lover? Can people like this be helped or saved from such tragic lives? What did the title mean? I have since found a passage referring to Willem feeling he had such ‘a little life’ in comparison with his artistic peers. He is at a party being asked about his commitment to his acting and whether he feels he is having to compromise his artistic ideals to be successful. He, Jude, JB and Malcolm are all professionally successful in a big way but he feels diminished in the eyes of those whose values matter to him.

At times, we contemplated the fairy tale or pantomime quality to some of the plot, the abused child being rescued by a fairy godfather, a loyal companion and a handsome prince. This had no fairy tale ending, however and left me craving beauty. I am reminded of Keats lines from Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Yanagihara’s novel describes characters enmeshed in one man’s mistaken flight from being known, forever trapped in deceit: a physically beautiful man forever hiding the ‘ugly’ truth.

Angela Douglas

The Shepherd’s Life – A Tale of the Lake District

Our reading choice for the last book group meeting of 2016 was James Rebanks’  ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ and as a group, we were divided in our liking for and appreciation of this best-selling book.

rebanksRebanks has given us a flavour of his life and experiences as a hill shepherd, a difficult and challenging way to make a living which he acknowledges is best supplemented by additional work to boost fluctuating income. He tells us about the family that shaped him and the people he lives near and does business with, the men and women in and around the Matterdale valley in Cumbria.

After descriptions of his shaky experience at school and a system that failed him, the group felt that this hadn’t held the author back, as he’s fortunate to be blessed with a quick and lively intelligence, a talent for writing and an enterprising and proactive spirit that affords him opportunities to pursue and exploit. He has a warm, generous and loving family around him and a father whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the landscape Rebanks tells us, makes a nonsense of conventional ideas of intelligence.

Rebanks writes with an evocative and poetic style, exploring the physical life of a sheep farmer, inextricably bound with meaning of the Cumbrian landscape and detailing a life where:

landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a million little unseen jobs.

His use of words is delicious and evocative of both the harshness of farming life through the seasons and the beauty of the landscape. Many of us felt Rebanks is trying to get a range of points across, in particular, the value of those who farm in maintaining the fabric and culture of the landscape. He points us to other countries where the lack of farmers in more remote areas creates a dearth in maintaining the cultural element of the landscape.

Rebanks observes the landscape and puts his observations into exquisite language –

Little things you see make it special. Skeins of geese pass over, high in the frosty blue. Ravens tumble over each other down the wind, like a black ribbon descending from the fell. Foxes skulk across the frost­ed fields at first light. Hares watch you with big dark watery eyes” and “the heron folds down the wind heading downstream.

sheepDescriptions of sheep are personal and wonderful and he explains the knowledge and understanding that goes into breading and improving a flock born out of hard work and skill. He tells us:

sheep are cultural objects, almost like art

and we can see exactly what he means.

We were divided in our feelings about the format of the narrative. Some readers felt that the story flowed like the seasons, with the author touching on particular stories at varying points and matching those seasons, where past present and future are always the same, running and flowing into each other. Others were bothered by this and felt that the narrative was random and disjointed, with some commenting that Rebanks touches upon subjects but doesn’t expand on them, one reader stating that she felt the structure could have been improved in order for the depth of Rebanks’ arguments to come out.

One reader felt that in the opening pages, the author seems to be against the very people who are reading his book but as he develops his story, he engages the reader in a positive way. Others were divided in their opinion about how political Rebanks is being in his narrative, some feeling that he makes points but won’t be drawn on them as was their experience when they heard him speak about the book during his appearance at the Durham Book Festival.

The discussion concluded with a reader describing the book as:

a lovely bowl of broth, warm and hearty, where you get a different bit in your mouth with every spoonful and you never quite know what you’re going to get next.



Rachel Orange