Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

For the last couple of years, I have been suffering crushingly debilitating insomnia. It has been going on for so long, fatigue is my new normal. I’ve tried all the tips and tricks but given my current circumstances, I need to let it be what it is, in the hopes one day it will dissipate.

This book is poignant to me in that I read it solely at night. And by night, I mean the witching hour of 2-3am when I usually awaken for seemingly no rhyme or reason with dearth hopes of immediate slumber. For a while I decided reading would be the best elixir to induce me into a blissful and nocturnal bliss. In truth, this strategy saw mixed results.

But through my battle against the great unsleep, I found this tale to be an exquisite comfort. It’s sweet. And beautiful; beguiling. And a stark reminder that intimacy and companionship are important at any age.

One evening, 70-year-old widow Addie visits her long-time neighbour, widower Louis, with an unusual proposal. She suggests that they platonically sleep together to provide comfort through the dark hours of loneliness. Addie and Louis are challenged by their respective family members who are bewildered by this newly-formed and yet increasingly co-dependent relationship. I thought this little story was gorgeous. Life-affirmingly so. Like Addie found her Louis, I found my insomniac antidote, if only for a few nights.

 

Brooklyn by Colm Toibin

There is a well-worn expression that asserts that people come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. For me, a perennial loyalist, this painful adage is brutal in the transient honesty is foretells. Gently folded across the reason/season borderland, the tyranny of distance can be a cruel mistress. Many of us have suffered the loss of one who moves away. The distance can be as far-reaching as Spain or as close as Hobart, but the jabs of grief are frequent enough to be uncomfortably paralysing.

I recently lost a dear friend to geography’s greedy clutches. While the sudden departure was swift and unexpected, the emotional aftermath was clumsy, confusing and confronting. Time will be the great antidote; the simple, and yet only inoculation against the painful ennui of the gaping hole of loss. But those of us left behind are only one part of this dichotomy. Within the binary union, there also exists the one who leaves. They depart our shores for a reason, a season or a lifetime.

Brooklyn is the story of the one who leaves.  Eilis, a young woman unable to find work in 1950s Ireland, sets sail for the promises of the holy land: NEW YORK CITY. Eilis had no immediate desire to depart her motherland. Family and circumstance prescribe the vaccination against poverty and intergenerational languor. She tries, she strives and she thrives (mostly) in her quest to build her life in the globe’s toughest and most unforgiving city.

Eilis’ experiences are blanketed by the female experience. Her circumstances are uniquely felt because of her gender and, in many way, transcend the period in which this novel is set. I once overheard a mother say to her daughter, ‘always earn your own money, that way you’ll have choices’. This is indeed true. The feminisation of poverty is as omnipresent in 1950s Ireland and New York as it is today.

Tobin has a bonsai-quality with emotion and yet the haunting restraint is powerful. Eilis’ adventures are unsophisticated, simple and yet profound in their meaning. Her desire to move forward is inhibited only by the clutches of the past and bygone, guilt-imposed responsibilities.

So to those of you who leave, we wish you well and may only the best things come to you.

For those of us left behind, for whom the gaping hole will never be quite filled even as it does grow smaller, um, f*ck you geography.

April Fool’s Day by Bryce Courtenay

One of the hardest things in life is seeing someone you care about go through adversity or struggle. It’s innately humane to want to absorb the pain for ourselves and protect our loved one from the slings and arrows of sickness and trauma. While the afflicted one is unquestionably single-minded in their immediate battle, those of us who are mere accessories to the pain are left to contend with helplessness, confused agony and what sometimes feels like incompetent love.

I have thought for many years that April Fool’s Day is Bryce Courtenay’s greatest work. Don’t get me wrong, I thought The Power of One was sublime. But April Fool’s Day is a gift of such raw and honest poignancy, that I have read and reread this epic memoir more times than I can count. I used to own a very much loved and reread copy of this tome but sadly had to let it go. Like the book’s thematic exploration, my pre-loved physical copy became as transient as the life the text celebrates. But very recently, and perhaps given the ongoing health sitch of one of my cherished friends, I downloaded a digital version so I can once again be absorbed by its message of gratitude and great love. Because April Fool’s Day is as life-affirming as it is incredibly, incredibly morose.

Courtenay’s profound bio is a tribute to the much-too-short life of his dear son Damon. Damon, a haemophiliac, contracted HIV through a blood transfusion in late 1983, aged 17. The early 1980s was the very genesis of the AIDS epidemic. Damon’s haemophilia made him endure painful and protracted bouts of unrelenting restrictions and, through bad luck and circumstance, would give birth to the even more capricious and mercurial HIV/ AIDS diagnosis. While medicine, education and (lord hopes) bigotry have progressed in extraordinary bounds since Damon’s diagnosis, Courtenay’s tale of filial love is as timeless as it is boundless.

As titanic as Courtenay’s devotion is to his son, April Fool’s Day reveals more than just an examination of fatherly love. Staunchly holding ground in the wings is the irrepressible Celeste. Devoted, constant and unwavering in her care of her beloved, Celeste’s omnipresence in the last six years of Damon’s life demonstrates the very best of loyalty and faith that I have ever seen. More than anyone, Celeste had borne witness to Damon’s deterioration as his body betrayed his determined spirit. Her battlements against Damon’s illness were the quadrella of humour, energy, determination and love. Pure and absolute love for what would be a temporary union. As Courtenay so eloquently articulated, she was not prepared to let Death into Damon’s room and would fight it back again and again. Damian died on 1 April 1991.

Courtenay starts his epic chronicle with a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid IV – all at once the warmth fell away and the life passed into the moving air. It stings my eyes every time I read it.

Oh sweet and kind Celeste, wherever you are. I hope only good things have come to you.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

There cannot be a more complicated relationship than that between mother and daughter. Not even the most unconventional and peculiar of marriages can surpass the volatility and vitality of a woman and her filial offspring. From time immemorial the stories of this relationship have been captured in order to provide certainty and understanding in the most complex of associations. I know my relationship with my own mother has not escaped the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. At times my mother has been my best friend, my confidante. At other times…not so much! And let’s be honest, teenage girls, my former self included, can be somewhat challenging…

The mother-daughter nexus has been explored in fiction in many shapes and forms. From Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women to more modern tales such as White Oleander and The Joy Luck Club, this binary pairing fill authors’ pages with a plethora of complicated twists and turns, triumphs and tragedies. Elizabeth Strout’s offering explores a very personal fictional history in this vain.

The relationship between Lucy Barton and her mother is incredibly strained and hauntingly unsatisfying. The majority of the novel is the retelling of Lucy’s convalescence in hospital for the duration of a long illness. Her mother visits of for a matter of days and it is in the retelling of this visit, secrets of the past are unveiled and recounted. Lucy’s mother, from Lucy’s perspective, makes no attempt to bridge the gap in their translation. There’s was, and remained, a relationship that was resistant to even the most adept translator. Despondent and confused, Lucy endeavours to understand her plain-speaking and emotionally-dearth mother and in doing son learns to understand her own life a little better.

This tale is short and sharp but I felt a little like Lucy towards it’s end: a little unfulfilled and in need of more.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

“Very early in my life it was too late. It was already too late when I was eighteen.”

Like most 16 years old young women on the brink of adulthood, I was easily influenced and incredibly introspective. Naïve, yet on the brink of knowing everything, I yearned to have it all, know it all and be fulfilled by it all. I was a voracious reader (I still am) and frequently disappeared into the world of fiction, forever changed by the worlds introduced to me by Shakespeare, Austen, Mitford, Christie and *cough* whoever wrote Sweet Valley High.

At about this time I met someone who was soon to become a dear friend. In reality, she is more like a big (wiser) sister. I can tell her anything and everything and she certainly knows where all the bodies are buried. My friend-come-sister L is also a voracious reader and in this period in both our lives we traded shared experiences of reading – anything from Anna Karenina to The Thoughts of Nanushka. I look back and cringe how desperate I was to acquire experiences of romance and love.

L introduced me to The Lover. There are no words to describe this exquisite collection of beautifully formed words. For me it was the perfect book. It may not be so perfect to me now and yet it still makes me weep. Set in colonial Vietnam, it has everything: forbidden romance; the subjugation of colonialsation and race; gender disparities and mental illness. For such a trés petite novel, it contains a mighty tour de force.

In many ways Duras’ prose is like the syncopated rhythm of jazz. Sometimes it is elegant and sometimes it is discombobulated. But at all times, this autobiographical novel is enrapturing and I read it time and time again to be seduced by the lover within.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

There’s a funny unspoken thing about marriage. Even the most mediocre unions are usually presented to the world as flawless and without blemish. Matrimony is the stomping ground of fairy tales; the culmination of the prince rescuing the damsel over time. In reality, marriage is inconsistent, volatile and ever changing. It requires work and commitment for it to flourish and what goes on behind closed doors can be both magical and malevolent. It is not often couples reveal the secrets within a marriage, lest they become exposed for the gloriously flawed and imperfect unions they are.

Marriages also make incredibly interesting subject matter for a plot-driven tale.

Fates and Furies explores the love and life of Lotto (Lancelot) and Mathilde Satterwhite throughout the course of their relationship. Their coupling is sudden and serendipitous (like many), but the cracks begin to reveal themselves through the most innocuous circumstances. I often find it is never the big moments in life that are a test of character, but rather, the hum drum of monotony that unveil a superimposed public mask. The days, weeks and years coagulate to form a merged duet.

Fate and Furies highlights there is a fine balance when we enmesh ourselves with our significant other. There is a hair-thin borderline between compromise and capitulation. It is both tedious and terrifying. This novel is not a thriller but it is thrilling. Groff employs strategic plot devices that make the tale gripping and compelling. I could not put it down. Perhaps it is part voyeurism (yes I watch reality TV too) and perhaps it is part of seeing in print that even the most perfect theatre conceals a sometimes dishevelled and disorderly back stage.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

It was a serendipitous decision that A Little Life was the last book I read last year. Half-way through 2015, I had already gone through a couple of very painful and personal traumas including attendance at three funerals. I adopted the moniker “my long sh*tty year” in order to give explanation to too many circumstances beyond my control. While 2016, so far, has brought a sense of freshness and vitality, last year proved to me that life is nothing if not the ebb and flow of life’s incidents and accidents with everything in between. A Little Life is inherently a whole lotta ebb and a whole lotta flow. The lives of four college friends are captivatingly uncovered through an enchanting tale of life, loss and the power of circumstance.

Throughout this novel John Lennon’s moving ballad Hey Jude, most specifically the line “take a sad song and make it better” attached itself as soundtrack in my mind. Yanagihara’s protagonist Jude St Francis is the literary manifestation of a sad song. He has endured every possible obscenity and crushing episode of any fictional character I have read this side of Oliver Twist. In fact, good ole Ollie managed to journey through his troubles relatively unscathed. Jude’s sheer awful luck followed by an unrelenting spiral of misfortune is as brutal as it is unstoppable. Fate’s path will not be forfeited. And yet like Lennon’s filial tune, there are moments of light, excitement and yearning. There are long stretches of nostalgia and giddiness that burst through the murkiness.

This novel is devastatingly brilliant. The prose is superb and the plot journey is delicate and exquisite. The title itself, seemingly innocuous, is jarring when its relevance is understood. It is almost flippantly spoken and yet the meaning is so incredibly powerful and poignant, I actually had to pause reading for a couple of minutes while its significance absorbed through me like a scrounging parasite.

If not the best, then certainly one of the best novels I read last year. At over 700 pages A Little Life is a lotta book. But it is worth it. It can be slow and sad and difficult in parts which, to be fair, is not unlike the many human relationships we endure in our own little lives.