A Little Life, the second novel from Hanya Yanagihara has caused quite a stir in the literary world this summer, with critical acclaim, a growing fan base and recognition on the 2015 Man Booker Prize long list. With this in mind I was excited to read it, and having spent five days gripped by this story I can say quite confidently that this is one of my favourite books of this year, if not of the past few years.
The novel tells the story of four friends making a life for themselves in New York. Jude is a lawyer, Willem, an actor, JB is an artist and Malcolm is an architect. The friends met at college and so we see how their relationships evolve over time, gradually learning a little more about each of them. The main mystery amongst the group surrounds Jude, the main focus of the novel, a successful lawyer with a troubled psyche, who struggles with the events of his past. Over the course of the novel, I really felt I got to know the characters, they are so rich in detail and interesting, and I felt it was a perfect portrayal of friendships, the fragility of them, yet the strength of bonds that last a lifetime.
‘..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’
As we begin to delve deeper into Jude’s life, A Little Life takes a more upsetting turn as we uncover the events that haunt Jude. We see how he has been scarred, mentally and physically and has been subjected to unimaginable levels of abuse. Subsequently, one of the ways Jude attempts to cope with his trauma is by way of self harm. These scenes make for some uncomfortable reading and there were parts that made me wince and almost gasp in horror. It is raw and brutal in its honesty, and I felt I learned a little more from these scenes and got a better understanding of the thought process behind creating new pain to distract from the old. This then leads to questions of how a person can recover from past trauma. Can a person who has been through so much be saved? What are the long-term effects on a person, on their families?
‘..No matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully’
There are characters in this book that will make your skin crawl, people who inflict such horror on their fellow humans that it is beyond comprehension. But, it isn’t all depressing. With the pain and the struggle there is hope, and a light at the end of the tunnel. I think that A Little Life represents both the best and worst of humanity. There are certainly characters in this book that gave me hope. Willem in particular is a wonderful character and Harold, Jude’s mentor also showing that whilst humans can cause damage we can also rebuild. We can make sacrifices, we can help people, and we can fight for people. We can never give up. This is what I loved about this book the most. It celebrates love, devotion and resilience.
Many themes are covered in this book. Aside from the central themes about relationships and abuse this is a look at life as a whole. There are points in the book where you start to subconsciously question your own life as the characters question their own. What is the definition of success? Do you have a perfect relationship, close friends? Do you want a family? There were just so many beautiful moments of reflection on life, moments to make you laugh, cry and think. This is life in all its forms – love and loss, relationships, friendships, success, failures, pleasure and pain.
‘I think I turned out normal, all things considered, don’t you?
No, I think you turned out extraordinary, all things considered or not’
You would be forgiven for being a little put off by a book of this length that tackles subjects that are unpleasant and difficult to read about. I myself was a little apprehensive about the subject matter and whether I would enjoy reading it. However, I would urge anyone to pick up this book. At 720 pages it is long read but I was utterly gripped by it and could barely tear myself away from the pages, so immersed I was in this world, so desperate for these characters to find their way and lead happy lives. This is a compelling, harrowing novel, one that I won’t be forgetting any time soon and is destined to remain one of my favourites.