A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

>> Monday, November 09, 2015

TITLE: A Little Life
AUTHOR: Hanya Yanagihara

PAGES: 736
PUBLISHER: Doubleday

SETTING: Contemporary(ish) New York
TYPE: Fiction

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he'll not only be unable to overcome-but that will define his life forever.

This was a book I read purely because it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I'd heard quite a lot about it, even before it was longlisted, and it really didn't sound like something I'd want to read. Over-the-top trauma isn't usually my thing, much less 750 pages of it. But then it was shortlisted, so I forced myself to pick it up. I expected to struggle with it and have to push myself to continue reading. But I didn't! I was completely absorbed right from the start and practically raced to the end. Don't get me wrong; it was pretty harrowing and often difficult, but it was much more of a "good read" than I expected.

The blurb and many reviews make this sound as if it's the story of four friends. There are four friends and when the book starts out it does feel like it's going to be about them and their friendship, but you soon see it's not. This is the story of one of them, Jude. The start is only a way to tell us a bit about the people who revolve round Jude, tell us their stories and show us the big space Jude takes up there. But Jude is the centre. Jude endured horrific abuse as a child, and as an adult, the consequences (both physical and psychological) have a huge impact on his entire life. What we have here is basically a character study. We get to know and understand Jude and really get under his skin. It's not really a story of triumph over adversity, even though Jude has overcome a lot to become very succesful in his career and amassed a group of people around him who love him. The consequences of his abuse are too big for that. This is really a tragedy. For me, it was still worth reading and I'm glad I did, but it really won't work for everyone.

And even though it did work for me, I did have some issues with it. Mainly, I thought it would have worked even better if it hadn't been so extreme. I've listened to a couple of interviews with the author and she makes no bones about the fact that she was going for just that. I just didn't feel that was well-judged. Not because it made the book too hard too read or too harrowing, but because I felt that it detracted from the impact it could have had.

See, to be upset about something, I need to believe in it. I didn't quite believe in Jude's past. His early life is is 100% full of 100% evil monsters. It was not so much that I doubted there would be people quite so evil; we all know there are monsters in this world. It was more the logistics of Jude encountering quite so many of them (pre-internet, too, though it's true that time in this book doesn't really pass), with no one even half-decent in between, and the contrast between that and how in the life he builds in New York he is surrounded by so many people who love him unconditionally and are there for him uncompromisingly, willing (actually, eager!) to dedicate their entire lives to him. The contrast between those worlds felt too strong. So because I didn't fully buy the details of the abuse, it felt less traumatic to read. When Yanagihara was describing Jude falling into the clutches of yet another monstrous abuser, I wasn't that affected, because it didn't feel like something that was happening to a real person, it felt like something an author was coolly doing to a character. That drained a lot of the effectiveness.

That said, even though I didn't completely believe the circumstances that affected Jude so much, I was able to suspend disbelief somewhat, and appreciate the character study. I found the portrayal of the way the abuse had changed him and still affected him sadly believable. Now, that was harrowing, and tremendously so. It's heartbreaking. As a reader I celebrated whenever something good happened to him, and part of me hoped it would be the thing that was going to help him start believing that he's worth loving, that he was not at fault for what was done to him. That part of me kept hoping he'd finally make a breakthrough. The other part of me knew he wouldn't, though. It's not really a spoiler; it's quite clear what this book is, and really, it's what makes it so good.

One element I found particularly thought-provoking was the relationship that develops between Jude and one of his friends. After many years (and this book covers many decades, all weirdly taking place at a time that feels like more or less the present), they become a couple, and that has its own big challenges. What's most interesting is that I've seen this described as a gay novel, but I don't think it is. I don't think Jude is gay (the other guy is bisexual, I would say). It feels more like this romantic relationship is the only model they have to deepen their friendship, even though that doesn't really fit with what Jude needs (and because that is the case, it doesn't quite fit with what his partner needs). That was a particularly successful aspect of the book for me.

As I mentioned in my final Man Booker post, after finishing this I really thought the bookies were right and it was going to win it. I'm still surprised it didn't!



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