To do the book justice I have to say first that A Little Life had me thoroughly gripped. Despite it being a very long book, over 700 pages, I read it in two days flat and for those two days I could hardly drag myself away from it. It was also incredibly moving—it made me cry A LOT. The author writes grief, pain and trauma skilfully. The characters, although larger-than-life, are interesting and engaging. I was invested in their stories.
Having said that, it is also a flawed book that would have benefitted from some stringent editing. I wouldn’t take issue with the flaws if it had not been so widely, hyperbolically lauded and shortlisted for every literary prize going.
A Little Life begins with four young men: Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm, fresh out of college and starting out in New York. Hanya Yanagihara’s New York is cloyingly cool: the characters’ extended friendship circle are the Bright Young Things of their generation, they are all minorities, everyone is from an ethnic background, everyone has a fluid, non-specific sexuality—the only group it seems to overlook, weirdly enough, is women. At this point I wondered if it was going to be a ‘Boys’ version of Lena Dunham’s Girls. Sadly not. Initially we get a section from each character’s POV but then abruptly JB and Malcolm are abandoned and we begin to focus primarily on Jude—from his own perspective and from Willem’s perspective. From what we can glean upfront it seems that Jude has a problem with his legs, he is unable to climb stairs, his background is mysterious—the others don’t know anything about his upbringing before college, and it becomes apparent that he is hiding some terrible trauma in his past.
As the story unfolds the author teases us with glimpses of Jude’s traumatic past until the full horror is revealed with a distastefully melodramatic flourish. The author is quite competitive about the extent of Jude’s suffering—Jude St Francis will be THE MOST damaged person you‘ve ever read about, she seems to assert. This authorial sadism is off-putting, I had a similar response to The Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, it made me long for the character’s death to liberate them from the cruel machinations of the writer.
There are a number of strangely convoluted moments in the plotting: some characters and storylines are introduced in retrospect, as though the author had forgotten to add them in earlier. There are also some strange gaps in logic: despite the author’s focus on supportive friendships, Jude’s friends fail him spectacularly when it comes to intervening in his self-destructive behaviour. Despite his very obvious issues he is never medicated or hospitalised and only resorts to counselling very late in the narrative. Jude has a brief reprieve in the clunkingly-signposted section ‘The Happy Years’ before everything, inevitably, goes to hell again.
Hanya Yanagihara has spoken about her desire to write about male friendships and the support of non-traditional families—this is a fantastic theme that I think she should have developed even further in A Little Life. In an age when the idea of the family unit is evolving it is fascinating to look at ‘families’ that are based on something other than a romantic relationship. If she had stuck to her guns on this I think it would have been a better book. Instead she compromises and loses the momentum of this concept.
A Little Life is a moving and an engaging book but it is also a self-conscious book that takes itself very seriously, and, in combination with the author’s relentless persecution of her protagonist, is in danger of slipping into farce.