A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, which was long listed for the Booker prize in 2016, tells the story of a group of friends who meet at an Ivy League college, then live in New York. It follows their lives from post college days to the deaths of two of the protagonists years later, with flashbacks to earlier life events.
The main focus of A Little Life is on Jude, a gifted lawyer working at the most financially rewarding levels of the New York legal profession, but with a life blighted by a history of child abuse. He is unable to recover emotionally from his early experiences, some of which are recounted in detail, and is at the centre of this group of four bright and articulate New Yorkers who each go on to achieve success – one as an artist, one an interior designer, the third a successful film star, and of course Jude himself, as a lawyer.
We see aspects of the life stories of all these characters, who take turns in narrating sections of the novel. Each time, whilst ranging more widely, the main narrative focus is on the story of Jude, a foundling brought up in a monastery where he was beaten. He ran away, only to find himself in even more dangerous and abusive relationships. Finally Jude finds a compassionate social worker who rescues him from his tormented life, and recognising his intelligence, sends him off to an Ivy League college.
Does that sound like a fairy tale? In some ways this book is as melodramatic as that, straining out and examining the dramatic extremes of human emotion and human relationships: a world of extreme cruelty and pain, of eternal loyalty and love.
There is quite a chasm between the earlier experiences of Jude, and his more comfortable later life, when he is in possession of a house in the country, a flat in London and regular trips to Paris or India. In some ways these sections are quite hard to identify with, quite alienating, especially in the light of the recent Brexit vote, and the popularity of Trump, both of which have been attributed to some extent to the feelings of the economically excluded. In this sense the book does seem to be about the most and least privileged experiences of America, ignoring wide swathes in the middle. I wondered whether this contrast was a literary device intended to emphasise the degradation of Jude’s earlier experiences. In the end the universal and triumphant career successes of these four characters did seem a little improbable.
Nevertheless, A Little Life is well written and in some ways a compelling read. The main character is a figure of extreme sympathy and compassion. A victim of emotional and sexual abuse, and infected with diseases and ill health inflicted on him by his abusers, Jude is nevertheless a completely moral character, indeed haunted by the guilt associated with his ill treatment. As a friend he is always reliable and caring, and the relationships he builds with colleagues and friends are enduring and full of love. In a moment of utter cruelty he is run over by a car and this inflicts physical disabilities on top of the already severe mental injuries he has suffered. In the terms of the novel it seemed that the continuing physical pain this caused was a metaphor for the deeper hurts in Jude’s psyche: the pain and discomfort was eternally present and Yanagihara spared no words in describing it in all its horrors.
Hanya Yanagihara writes with clarity and precision and this is a very long and detailed novel. Dialogue is extensive, and at times quite mundane, and Yanagihara invites us to share the increasingly rather exclusive worlds of these wealthy New Yorkers in language that is evocative, and at times littered with emotive and interesting metaphors.
A Little Life is a pretty tough read – it is not only very long, but its subject matter is painful and difficult. It’s almost too depressing, though there are elements of hope in the love and compassion Jude shares with friends, and with an old university tutor who finally adopts him, allowing Jude to experience for the first time the love of a family.
It’s not a book you should read without a strong stomach, some stamina, and a good deal of sympathy with liberal and metropolitan attitudes to human relationships.