On the front cover of the book are single word quotations from UK newspapers, including ‘astonishing’, ‘devastating’ and ‘extraordinary’. These are all true of A Little Life – and more. Profound, intense, moving, capacious all appropriately spring to mind.
Yet, that’s only the half of it. The reality is that over its 720 pages, A Little Life is also deeply traumatic, emotionally exhausting and, at times, unbearably harrowing. The investment in the characters (and Jude in particular) is such that, on the one hand, you never want the book to end: yet such is the litany of horrors, it needs to be over.
A story of friendship, grief, loss and love, A Little Life is essentially a parable of our time with Hanya Yanagihara choosing to tell the story of the bonds and ties that bind in male friendship over a 30 plus year period: whilst present, women, as friends, wives, mothers and sisters, are essentially secondary.
But this is no macho, beer-swilling, sports-mad strut.
The four central characters, contemporaries and roommates at college in Boston, all become eminently successful in their chosen careers. From a wealthy, mixed-race background, the ever-diplomatic Malcolm studies architecture. Having lost his father at a young age and the only male in a Haitian household, the irascible JB, spoilt by the women in his family, eventually becomes a successful artist via drug and alcohol addiction. Blonde and blue-eyed, Wilhelm has matinee idol good looks that jettison him to success on stage, television and film. But it is the enigmatic Jude who is the central character of the group (and novel).
It is only over a period of time we find out the full story of Jude – an orphan emotionally, physically and sexually abused so profoundly that even as one of New York’s most successful litigators, he cannot recognise his own worth. Trust is almost impossible, even with the closest of friends. A physical relationship: out of the question. His body is so scarred from the abuse as well as his own self-harm (Jude cuts himself to such an extent that his long-suffering friend and doctor, Andy, believes he should be hospitalised), he can never remove any item of clothing in public.
Of the four friends, a special bond exists between Jude and Wilhelm – who himself has lost his parents and a brother who died from hydrocephalus. Yet even Wilhelm cannot ask of his friend that which he knows Jude cannot answer (no matter how much Jude wants to tell him). To Jude, so disgusting and depraved are his secrets, silence is the best option.
And Jude suffers for his silence – but he also physically suffers, unable to walk without intense pain. And it is this constant mix of emotional and physical distress that dominates Jude’s life and the lives of people around him. But their love for him is so profound, their need for his approval so deep, they accept this is part of who Jude is.
In spending 30 years evolving the story over 720 pages, A Little Life demands a great deal of investment from its readers. It puts you through the emotional wringer as Yanagihara addresses issues of social and personal importance of relevance today – abuse, eating disorder, physical self-harm, wealth accumulation, addiction, obsession to the point of madness, the measurement of success, suicide et al.
But in putting them into the minds and bodies of extremely successful men, there’s a very different take. Malcolm and his wife Sophie may be in Shanghai discussing his latest project or Jude and Wilhelm holidaying in Bhutan or JB opening a retrospective at the Witney, but it’s only an intervention that ensures Jude does not starve himself to death or JB self destruct on ice: it is Malcolm who talks of the couple’s decision not to have children.
A Little Life is an extraordinary book. The joy, the pain, the disappointment, the anger, the frustration – they’re all shared. But occasionally that pain is just a little too much and a little distance is required (sometimes I chose not to read for a couple of days). Its rawness and honesty is both its recommendation and its disparagement.
Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, A Little Life as favourite and anticipated to be the first American winner since the change of rules lost out to A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James.