A Little Life is not a little book. At over 700 pages, it is a book that demands concentration and an emotional investment. That said, I found myself reading it as quickly as possible, dedicating almost an entire weekend to it. It is not necessarily an easy book to read: some of its narrative is harrowing, and Yanagihara’s writing is convoluted in places; the book has received some negative reviews as a result. However, those aspects didn’t put me off and I experienced the book as a sweeping, challenging, sometimes upsetting, glorious read.
On the surface, the novel is about the love and friendships between four men, who initially meet each other at university. Having been somewhat adrift and insecure as students, they are contained by their tight-knit group, and each one goes on to be very successful in his chosen career – an artist, an architect, an actor and a lawyer. They live these successful lives in New York, lives of the rich and famous, and, although the friendships fascinated me and are well portrayed, I would have become a bit bored if the story had carried on in this way.
Yet early on in the book, the author drops in hints about one of the main character’s past. Jude is the epicentre of their group – brilliant, distant, enigmatic and damaged. Yanagihara cleverly feeds us information about him with the slow delivery of a dripping tap, revealing childhood abuse that scars him for life, both physically and emotionally. He becomes a highly successful litigator in New York, is adopted as an adult by a loving older couple and is adored by friends, yet he remains so traumatised he is unable to escape the effects the abuse has had on him, and to accept the love that surrounds him.
Out of the group of four friends, he is closest to Willem, and shares a cramped apartment with him when they start out their careers in New York. He trusts Willem as much as he can anyone, and Willem cares for him with near unconditional love, a trait which sometimes made me think he must have had saint-like qualities. Their friendship morphs into a relationship down the line, although it is not portrayed really as a gay relationship. As Willem says (and I paraphrase as I no longer have the book to refer to) of it -‘I’m not gay, I’m just in love with Jude’.
Yanagihara portrays their friendship beautifully, the depth of love they have for each other more special than any other relationships. Others envy their friendship – I envied their friendship – yet Yanagihara never romanticises the difficulties such a relationship would present; one with such a damaged individual that all the love in the world cannot save him from his self-loathing and destructive behaviour.
The book does not have a happy ending, which was a redeeming factor for me. It would have been too unbelievable if it had. The author has been criticised for creating such a long, upsetting book, yet she says:
…as readers, don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset? A novel, in its truest form, is a questioning of what it means to be human, of what a life is. But what makes it different from, say, a work of philosophical inquiry is, among other things, the way it uses (or misuses, or differently uses) language and, second, the particular sense of discomfiture it can provide.
There are many other sub-plots going on around this friendship and around Jude specifically, too many to cover here, and perhaps one or two are superfluous, but Yanagihara has written a story that in essence sets out what she meant it to – ‘to question what it means to be human and what it is to have a life’. We all have little lives, and we all live them differently; the one about which Yanagihara has written made me grateful for mine and Jude’s story still hasn’t left me.
On a final note: I don’t cry in books, I really don’t- I think the last time was when I read The Incredible Journey when I was about 10. I sobbed over this book, and carried on crying into the evening after I had finished it. It was the beauty of the friendship that set me off – not the abuse or the self-hatred, but the love between two individuals. I would recommend this book to anyone but you have to be prepared to be confronted with Jude’s little life of big trauma.