A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

This is one of the times when I feel tempted to make my response to a novel very personal. Reading A Little Life is not an easy thing to do. Despite how compelled I was to turn the pages, I also found reading difficult because I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear more about the main character’s life. Jude, around whom all the other characters turn, has had such a traumatic childhood that unravelling more of his history is painful.

Jude is a bright and beautiful man who was left outside a monastery as a baby. To tell you all the horrors of his childhood and early adulthood would be difficult, partly because despite the length of the novel we never hear them all, and partly because it would spoil the plot. What did happen to Jude? Why is he so keen to keep his early life a mystery? How did he get his limp and why doesn’t he like to touch people?

Jude’s relationship to his body and to pain become easier to understand and, in some ways, harder to sympathise with as the novel goes on. Despite his physical disabilities – his spine was damaged in a car accident and this leaves his legs very susceptible to pain and infection – it becomes easier to understand why pain is a release for his mental suffering even as I grow increasingly frustrated with his self-destructive tendencies. He overcomes so much and yet I long for him to overcome more, to stop allowing his past to crush the potential of his present and future. And this is, of course, a response to Yanagihara’s brilliantly drawn character. I feel for Jude. I feel for his friends. I experience the events as if they really had happened.

Although Jude is the central character, there are several other carefully drawn characters, most notably his three college friends Malcolm, JB and Willem. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but part of what the novel achieves as a whole is an ability to track the special friendships between these four men as they move through early adulthood and into middle age. We see their desires and fears, their hopes and hang-ups. We follow how career drives – and they all have jobs in different fields so that the novel also gives an insight into law, acting, architecture and art – interfere with relationships and vice versa. The twists and turns of family, work and friends are depicted with surprising clarity and elegance.

However, part of my struggles with the book – if I put the personal connections aside, and these connections have to do with self-destructive behaviour and the nature of some of the illness that Jude has to face as he grows older – is the fact that there is little sense of redemption and while this is a struggle to face it is also what makes the book so challenging and successful.

A Little Life is about what we have to work with, just this life that we are given and nothing more. There isn’t a chance to do it again or to find peace in the afterlife. Any form of deliverance has to be won in life. It’s a tough message to take and though I read with a frantic speed, sometimes to rush through scenes that I found very upsetting, I am left wishing I hadn’t finished the novel after all. There are still characters whose lives I don’t want to leave; questions I would still like answered. To leave a reader both relieved to have finished and yet wanting more is testament to a remarkable talent.

I lived with the characters of A Little Life; they peopled my days, they troubled my nights. I didn’t always enjoy reading A Little Life, but I can’t deny the challenge of Yanagihiara’s writing. Though not for everyone, A Little Life is a powerful book worth reading despite the circumstances and emotions you are forced to confront.

Next week I’m reading The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh.

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