I am still trying to get the right vocabulary on how best to describe Hanya Yanagihara’s 724-page tome on struggle. Not struggle of the political kind, but a life filled with unrelenting sorrow. I cried in the beginning, in the middle, at the end, and everywhere in between. At one point my husband just looked at me during one of my sessions and asked: Why are you still reading this book? Because I started it and found that I couldn’t stop.
The story centres around four friends who meet at college, become firm friends – a friendship which lasts a lifetime and leads to unrealistically successful and glamorous loves. Take away the seemingly unlikely turn of their beautiful, uber-successful professional lives, central to the book is a story about friendship.
There is Malcolm, an architect who wants to carve out his professional without the pressure and influence of his affluent family. He goes on to become a renowned architect. The artist amongst them is JB – the most eccentric and most honestly drawn character, in my opinion, who, like Malcolm and the rest of them goes on to become very famous in the art world. Willem the actor, whose background is the rural mid-west, from a farming family, of Scandinavian roots and hauntingly good looking. He too, (see the pattern?), becomes world famous. Central to all four is Jude, the well-respected lawyer and most enigmatic them all. We learn enough about all the other characters, but it becomes clear that the book is essentially about Jude and some extent Willem.
The author offers tidbits of Jude’s background, then full chapters then goes back and forth weaving his past into his present, until about 600 pages on, we finally piece together the whole story. Unlike the other four, whose provenance is well detailed, framing Jude’s life is a life of misery. Abandonment as an infant, raised by the priests who found him at their monastery doorstep; sexual abuse; abduction by one of the brothers who was a paedophile; happy college and professional years; then abuse of a different kind as an adult; some happiness and then the end. Because there is so much misery in much of Jude’s life, the build-up of suspense to the big revelations of his sad life just felt drawn out. Not to mention how the amount of misery and suffering this one character is subjected to started to feel emotionally exhausting to read about.
What gripped me and kept me reading was the need to see him experience some happiness. And he does, eventually. He is adopted, as an adult, by his former law professor, friend, and mentor. We also see him happier in a relationship that he has with one of the other main characters. But just as I was feeling that this would, after all, end well, the author comes full circle and makes A Little Life feel like it should have been called A sad, miserable, painful, tortured little Life.
It was a satisfying read, in that it was not easy to put down. It was also a sad harrowing book on misery. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, but reviews have varied widely – from the outright criticism of Yanagihara’s writing technique regarding her use of flashbacks to provide the backstory; to criticism of her depiction of a male homosexual relationship written from a heterosexual woman’s point of view. A criticism I felt was unfair as a writer’s sexual orientation should not be a precursor to what they can write. The somewhat unrealistic depiction of the character’s near-perfect lives was another big issue with the critics. Would I recommend it? Yes, but cautiously. To be read with a box of tissues nearby.