A big story about A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara – Book Review

Hanya Yanagihara’s epic novel is a magnificent, yet flawed and improbable masterpiece.

I read many reviews before committing to this book, and it seemed to divide reviewers. Its average rating is an impressive 4.26 star average on Goodreads, yet amongst the praise and adoration for this book, there is also much dislike and rejection. I sit, rather unhelpfully but realistically, on the fence though leaning perhaps into the eager arms of the believers, drawn to the celebration of this novel, rather than the cynical castigation.

So here’s the deal. The A Little Life follows a group of four male graduates (JB, Malcolm, Willem and Jude) who are best friends as they find a place for themselves in New York City following University. I say follows, but two of the characters, Malcolm and JB, quickly recede into the background becoming only useful tools and plot devices for the author. This is a shame. Malcolm in particular is an undeveloped character with so much brewing under the surface. It’s strange that Yangihara introduces us to all four of the boys equally, we read sections of the book from the point of view of each one of the boys and then that formula suddenly stops. I’m not sure why, other than to focus in on Jude, the centre of the story and Willem, the highly improbable, unrealistic Willem.

We soon discover that Jude’s past holds many dark tales of child abuse, first learning that he cuts himself to ‘cleanse himself’ of these memories and then, slowly, Yanaghara drip feeds us the terrible history. The drip feeding mirrors Jude’s own mental processes; there will be a happy event and it will then be tarred by flashbacks to Jude’s past terrors, much the same way that Jude’s mind can never escape the past, despite his present day successes.

The book is long, and it ought to be. The prose is well written and I like it, although I know there has been plenty of criticism. The sheer expanse of the book is part of its extraordinariness. Perhaps because I read this over a busy month and it took me a while to finish, but by the time I came to the end of the book, I could barely remember what the characters had been like when I had started. The novel covers approximately four to five decades of events, more if you include the flashbacks to Jude’s early life, and it is so detailed and so incredibly full. It is also astonishingly terrifyingly.

The detail of abuse that is contained isn’t for the faint hearted and there are many moments of anguish. It is absorbing and often I found that I felt quite separate to my own life, a sombre, morose mood would descend on me. I used to have to shake myself after reading certain sections, remind myself that this is fiction, it’s not my life. It is an extremely powerful book and its depiction of abuse, and particularly the devastating impact it can and will have on the victim’s adult life and ability to trust and develop relationships is honest and necessary.

And yet. And yet, it wouldn’t be fair not to document its pitfalls, its tendency toward the frustrating.

One of the things that really gets to me is how unrealistically successful everyone in the novel is! All four friends develop incredible careers; JB is featured at MOMA at a very early stage of his art career, Jude become a top litigator, Willem a world famous actor (yet bizarrely seeming to only do random indie films with titles that wouldn’t, not in our world anyway, bring commercial success), and Malcolm is a world famous architect. I’m sorry, but this never happens. Only in super privileged circles, where if you go to an elite private school and all your friends have parents with important contacts would all your  friends become so ridiculously successful, otherwise it just doesn’t happen. It would have been an interesting angle to have at least one bitter, unsuccessful friend. There is also the envious amount of globetrotting they all do. Meeting up with acquaintances in Europe, going off on long jaunts to Asia. Jude has certain injuries which cause him to find daily life in New York a struggle, yet trekking around Bhutan is casually mentioned in one brief paragraph.

We then have the impossible kindness of Jude’s friends. His doctor, Willem, his law professor, his neighbour, they all seem to devote their lives to trying to make Jude’s better, to look out for him. But these are all professional people with lives of their own; it is unrealistic. Although this book is a beautiful testament to the wonderful power of friendship, it is a dream, a fantasy. Friends let each other down. Especially when the person to whom they devote so much of their energies  is as impenetrable as Jude is. Jude is remarkably clever and talented at many things;  cooking, piano, maths. This draws people and admiration but his inability to be intimate, to share things about himself, his constant pulling away would in reality shut off a lot of people yet the characters here keep pushing.

We feel sorry for Jude, our hearts ache for what he has experienced, but Yanagihara doesn’t allow Jude to give anything back and humans are not infallible, we do often give up, we become exasperated and in some instances, with Jude’s refusal to appreciate the goodness of his  adult life or at least give some energy into helping himself leads to the reader feeling frustrated, and then, ashamed of that frustration.

Interestingly, and on a separate note, there is a dearth of female characters in this book. Ana, Jude’s first care worker who actually helps him, is introduced to us only in the past tense of a flashback and we learn only that she helped him finally escape his childhood. Julia, his adopted mother, is merely a paper character, serving the purpose of Harold’s wife. All the other characters with whom Jude has meaningful contact are male. Jude’s abusers are male and Jude’s saviours are male. I’m not sure why Jude forms barely any relationships with women, perhaps because for the first 16 years of his life he was only ever in the company of men, perhaps he has no understanding of them. It seems odd to me and I don’t understand it; women are, it seems, the only ones who haven’t hurt him. Wouldn’t it have been logical to Jude’s untrusting heart to befriend them, trust them over men? This one is something I never could work out.

So perhaps it is unsurprising that I struggle to decide how I really feel about this book. A Little Life received much attention and acclaim. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It won the Book Industry Award for Fiction. It is so unusual, so new and just magnificent. Yet it is really, really flawed, a story set in an alternate universe almost and I feel it would be naive of me not to point this out. But, it seems, it’s not enough for me to dislike it.