Beginning this blog post two weeks and three books after finishing A Little Life, I can still remember it vividly, remember the way I felt when reading it, remember the characters and the clear pictures in my mind when I was reading it. The post has taken me a really long time to write as I just don’t know how to get onto paper how I felt about A Little Life without spoiling it. I think I may have rambled on and on and on….
This is a book I will not forget. It’s a book I am not sure how to begin describing, and one that took me a really long time to come to terms with afterwards. It is the only book ever that I have had to push away from me, audibly muttering in horror, unable to read a word more despite the blue skies and sun overhead. It is also the only book ever that has left me crying even after I finished it, put it down, turned out the lights and tried to go to sleep. Normally books end on a note of redemption – this one does not. That is something that the author, Hanya Yanagihara has actually said – that American books in particular are very big on moving on, getting better, redemption, moving forward. Yanagihara wanted to write a character who does not get better, a more complicated book in which there is no redemption.
But hold on a moment – what is this book actually about?
At the opening of the book, the reader meets four university friends, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude. We learn a little about each of them – JB is a Brooklyn-born painter, sarcastic and occasionally cruel, seeking access to the art world, Malcolm is a frustrated architect, both with loving, supportive families. Willem grew up on a poor ranching family with a severely disabled brother. By the time the book begins, his brother and both his parents have died. And then there is Jude, whom nobody, not even his closest friends, know much about.
In the first few chapters, the book seems as if it may just be a story like any other (but written fantastically)- four friends graduate, they move to New York, they are all starting to try and achieve success in wildly different careers – JB as an artist, Malcolm as an architect, Willem as an actor, and Jude as a lawyer. In a normal book, some would fail, some would succeed, there would be ups and downs, happy relationships and sad. Through the character’s lives the author would say something about modern society and the changing times we live in.
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 seat mates’ faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country, when they were young and America seemed conquerable. He’d watch that kind light suffuse the car like syrup, watch it smudge furrows from foreheads, slick gray hears into gold, gentle the aggressive shine from cheap fabrics into something lustrous and fine. And then the sun would drift, the car rattling uncaringly away from it, and the world would return to its normal sad shapes and colors, the people to their normal sad state, a shift as cruel and abrupt as if it had been made by a sorcerer’s wand.
Not in this book – we are in fact lulled into a false sense of security before gradually, imperceptibly, the book shifts and becomes more and more about Jude and Willem, and specifically about Jude, with Malcolm and JB as friends on the sidelines. In addition, there are no markers of time throughout the book – the characters get older, living in New York, but there are no mentions of dates, there is no 9/11, no discussion of Iraq or technological advances or anything that would pin it to a particular time period. Yanagihara said she did this on purpose, to give the book a fairytale feel. And what a dark fairytale.
We learn about Jude’s horrific past as his friends do. There are moments early on in the book – references to Jude’s injured leg and moments of extreme pain, a childhood he never talks about and no family. But the shock really comes when Jude wakes Willem up one night, having cut his arms too deeply, covered in blood and needing to be taken to hospital. Jude asks instead to be taken to Andy, a doctor who is his friend, and it is there Willem learns what he has tried to ignore – this is not the first time this has happened. We soon realise that it is the matter of what happened in Jude’s past that drives the book’s narrative structure.
Wounds open overnight: the suppuration, the sick, fishy scent, the little gash, like a foetus’s mouth, that would appear burbling viscous, unidentifiable fluids
From here the story continues down a dark, deep pathway of self-harm and horrific childhood abuse. But what really sets this book apart is the character development – the dark, horrific moments are not the whole book, as the characters’ lives continue, they achieve great success in their jobs, they fall in love. For such a dark book, it is filled with moments of hope and joy – a testament to love and friendship that endures for life. I think this is what makes it so harrowing, the reason this book had such an effect on me – because you just get to know and love the characters, and when bad things happen, you literally can’t bear it. That’s how I would describe my reaction at one point in the book – I literally could not bear to read anymore.
But of course, I had to pick it back up again after a few minutes as I had to know that it all ended up okay. And as I’ve said above, ultimately, with this book, it does not all end up okay. Other characters have difficulties in their lives and recover, Jude does not. His self-hatred is all encompassing, even as he accumulates money, success, a prestigious reputation in a job he enjoys: “every year, his right to humanness diminished… every year, he became less and less of a person”.
The novel doesn’t shy away from issues of sexuality, especially sex and enjoyment of it after decades of abuse. One of the most heartbreaking lines in the book for me come when Jude, an adult in his 30s, says that he hasn’t had sex since he was 15. It is just so wrong and that sentence really brought it home for me. The majority of the central characters are also gay or bisexual – in a book which is in no way about being gay or bisexual, which for me was really refreshing. Their sexuality is just a normal fact of life, and indeed, one of the characters (I’m being deliberately vague so as to avoid spoilers) resists all attempts to come out as a “gay icon” when he begins a relationship with a man later in life. Yanagihara said she wanted to write about a version of adulthood without marriage and children, the version that is becoming more and more common, and one in which friendships are of utmost importance.
the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.
It has been criticised for a few things. Firstly, that Jude’s abuse and the relentless descriptions of his self-harming are too much. I can see how this could be a valid criticism – but then, I didn’t feel it was too much – I felt it was entirely necessary for the book to have the extreme emotional impact it did. Then, in contrast, that the successes of all the friends in their careers and the fact that Jude has so many loving friends around him – that, in essence, everything is so good other than what happened when he was a child – is not realistic. Perhaps not, but for me it was neccessary that everything else was so good. One, to stop the book being just too horrific, and two, because it shows that no matter how well things are going for you, there are some things you just cannot get over. And that was one of Yanagihara’s points.
Jude demands that we ask whether life is always worth living, whether some wounds are so deep as to be unrepairable.
It is, quite simply, a devastating book. When I finished it I was too upset, too emotionally involved to classify it as an incredible book – it was just the most harrowing I had ever read. Even know I hesitate to recommend it at the same time as I class it as one of the most incredible books I have been lucky enough to read. It is unforgettable.