Originally published over a year ago, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life only came to my attention recently, due to a strong anti-recommendation from a friend. Despite its length – dropping it can cause a sizeable thud – and challenging subject matter, it became a bestseller, sleeper hit and critical darling, nominated for several awards such as the Man Booker Prize.
Presented as a coming-of-age story, the book follows the lives of four university students, JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude, but concerns itself chiefly with the narratives of Willem and Jude. All four of these young men are bright and ambitious, with the first three desiring somewhat artistic careers – JB as an artist, Malcolm as an architect, Willem as an actor.
Jude is the odd one out here, not just in terms of his career choice – a lawyer – but in the group itself, with his undefined racial background and lack of family. Jude emerges as the protagonist, and the novel quickly becomes one detailing his survival, his struggles and suffering.
As the narrative develops, Jude’s background – the reasons for his disability, his secrecy, his distance – is illustrated in unnerving, perhaps even gratuitous detail, held up alongside parallels to his modern-day life. I kept turning the pages and ended up finishing the book, hoping to find some relief from the bleak tragedy of his life, the little life that the title concerns itself with.
I found that the relationship between Jude and Willem was my favourite, though Jude and Harold came a close second. Their burgeoning friendship and the understanding that developed between them, Willem’s desire to protect and love Jude – little wonder that this novel has been hailed as the latest queer novel, in all its glorious and gory melodrama.
The descriptions of JB’s photography and paintings of his friends were also favourites of mine – while Yanagihara might lack in some areas of writing, her imagery in these sections was superb.
On the other hand, it feels that Yanagihara’s characters exist in a unique state of being, unaffected by history and the world around them. Everything that happens to them is minute, personal – their relationships with each other (and occasionally outer characters) are the only events that seem to have a significant impact on their lives. It can be difficult to relate to the characters at times, as Yanagihara insists on telling, rather than showing. For example, Jude repeatedly self-harms and, while he does so, Yanagihara often depicts his emotions with an almost clinical detachment, although this could perhaps be attributed to an intentional attempt on part of the author, a critique of the reader’s emotional voyeurism.
Overall and despite its flaws, I enjoyed the novel and its bleak portrayal of a tragic (albeit thankfully fictional) life. It was moving and at times beautiful, and upon finishing it – crying, in the bathroom of a hotel at 3am – I felt a strange kind of catharsis. I now completely understand my friend’s odd, not-recommendation, and would urge that anyone who might read this book does so with caution. The novel exists, at heart, like a treatise on trauma – Jude’s suffering is relentless. Despite the kindness and love of his friends and his surrogate family, his past pursues and eventually overcomes him. But the ending finds him with a form of tranquil acceptance, perhaps even happiness – as if Jude is at last coming to the end of a long journey, one where he can finally rest.