One of the joys of reading is discovering a book you hadn’t known; a book that is so exceptionaln so unfamiliar in its brilliance, that its very existence is humbling. This is what happened to me last week when I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
Where had I been? How could I only have come across this now since it’s been out since 2015? Perhaps this is old news to you? If so, I need to hear from you! And yet... And yet... never have I waffled so much about reviewing a book. Should I, or shouldn’t I? Obviously, yes. At 800+ pages, this book is not for everyone. But it’s not its length that makes it such a daunting read.
At its heart, A Little Life is about the friendship of four men who met in college and proceed to navigate their way through the decades. There is very little action and not a whole lot happens. Instead, the story chronicles the successes of the men in their chosen fields - actor, artist, architect, and attorney - and their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude.
There are two black men and two white, two gay, one bi-sexual, and one of indeterminate sexual preference. The book is not about race or sexuality. As they grow older, their world consists of extraordinary wealth and luxury, but it's not about class either.
It soon becomes apparent that Jude is scarred from an unspeakable childhood experience. This unidentified trauma has left him damaged, physically and emotionally, and painfully private, unable to confront or reveal what happened. And yet, he is good and kind and loyal and achingly smart. He is wholly accepted by the others who develop a deep and beautiful bond.
As his physical condition worsens, Jude’s childhood is revealed in small doses (thankfully). There is something wrong with his legs, and his feet, his back and arms are scared, there is a scar on his hand, and he never ever lets anyone see him undressed. He experiences painful seizures and walks with a limp. His friends are, by turns, mystified and disappointed, sometimes angered, that he won’t trust them enough to tell them. For his part, Jude believes if they knew, they would abandon him.
Willhem and Jude share a special bond and become roommates after college. Although Willhem is kind and loyal and accepting of Jude just the way he is, Jude cannot believe he deserves it. He is so deeply ashamed of his past, so ingrained in his feelings of worthlessness, he can’t understand why they want to be friends, why he is so lucky to be so loved.
And loved he is. By so many friends, mentors, and the large circle of intellectuals and artists in which he’s surrounded.
As he explains to a young student he tutors, “The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are - not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving - and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad - or good - it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.” If only he could listen to his own advice.
The world they move in is one of extraordinary wealth and luxury, the kind very few experience. I was grateful Jude had the privilege of wealth so he could have the best in art, travel, food, music, and housing. His pain and suffering contrasts vividly with the beauty his wealth allows him.
The narrative alternates mostly between Jude and Willhem as they navigate their worlds. Willhem sees Jude as someone brave, and admirable, and resourceful, and resilient. And he is all of those things. But he is also tragically damaged.
As Jude’s condition worsens, so too does his mental state, and eventually we learn the story of his first 15 years. It’s hard going, to put it mildly. There were times I had to put the book down. Did the author have to make it this bad?
This book isn’t for everyone. I understand how the darkness of Jude’s past and the fear and guilt he lives with may be too much, the heartbreak too real. At times it was. But then there was the light behind the darkness - the beauty and the love, and some of the most raw and honest writing I’ve read in a long time.
You will love it or you will hate. Sometimes you will do both. Be brave.
In the meantime, happy reading!