A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is, on the surface, the near-perfect Booker Prize Short List novel. It’s 640 pages (tome? TICK!), it’s set in a geographically recognisable New York City (Metropolis? TICK!), and it has four, perfectly drawn characters with a decent dimension to them (a fraternal environment? TICK!). The book focuses on one of those characters through whom a tale of torture, self-hatred, self loathing and ultimately self-harm, is woven (huge human themes and a male lead as haunting as he is dominant? TICK!) I decided on the book as an Audible option (and, at 32 hours of listening time, that is no ‘taken lightly’ decision.), but I’m a big fan of The Booker Prize and have to date never been let down by the panel’s judgement. Most Booker nominees tend to deliver excellent reading, and those that don’t reach the upper echelons still guarantee a ‘solid’ read.
A Little Life is a book that, when I discuss, email, what’s app or indeed, blog about it, all I want to do is shake my head. That shaking reflects a few things;
Disbelief that one author can put her characters and her readers through such an experience of total, complete, emotional savagery;
Shock and awe at the resonance of the novel and the utter reverberation of the story;
Satisfaction and reflection upon the completion of the book. 640 pages, 32 hours, and I am STILL standing!
A Little Life deals with the central character of Jude St. Francis, an abandoned baby raised by the monks who found him on their monastery steps. We first meet Jude when he is part of a university foursome at an unnamed ‘New England College’, and the first fifth of the book babbles along like a pleasant, campus novel. For your own sake, though, don’t be fooled. Yanagihara’s skill is in her (almost agonisingly) slow drip feed of Jude’s history. She weaves his past in and out of the Manhattan present, all the while crafting a back story that is frantically desparate, bleak, painful, and ugly.
Our original four college boys, Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude negotiate lives as actor, artist, and architect, moving from new adult life to the glamour of elite success in each of their fields. Jude becomes a beyond successful, beyond wealthy, corporate defence lawyer; he is adopted by his warm and loving Law Professor and his wife. He holidays regularly on the East Coast and purchases several properties.
However, Yanagihara is hard at work spinning her grotesque quilt that is The Little Life of the title. For all of Jude’s grand achievements, he frequently self-harms as a means to purge himself of his self perceived filthy past. We soon find out how this habit has come to pass and a small plastic bag of razors comes to be a part of this book, sending chills up the spine every time it arrives into a scene, invading the readers senses as much as it does Judes. Similarly, Jude endures a vicious physical condition that on occasion demands he use a wheelchair, and has an adapted apartment to accommodate his disability. The true distillation of how his terminal injuries came about is stomach churning, beyond harsh and – this is key – glacial in its pacing.
A Little Life is a tricky plot to review without plot spoiling but, in a nutshell, this is a book about one man’s existence. A central narrative does help move things along but it is the history of Jude St Francis that makes the novel so texturally rich and ultimately means the reader will almost invariably be a different person when they’ve finished the final chapter.
The prose is clean and succinct, lacking the poetic quality of some other Booker nominees, but impressive all the same, and also appropriate for a novel of such genuine despair. Whilst Yanagihara’s NYC is a little one dimensional, the complexity of Jude’s life – his timidity, his guilt, his innocence, including a relationship of pure and utter brutality from which he barely escapes, ensure the reader bonds with the character rather than dwelling upon surface details. Indeed, this book is much more about the heart and soul, than the college-coming-of-age tale one initially thinks they are reading.
A Little Life is an undertaking, but for all of the depths it trounces (indeed, Yanagihara in interview admitted that she and her editor did discuss at length how much torture and angst one human can actually take), it is a novel of hope. In spite of a hideous history, Jude St Francis does triumph and, in fitting conclusion, is the master of his own tragedy which seems him conquer the demons of his past.
There are many books in this life we are glad we read, and characters that, for all the slog – the lost hours of sleep and the torches under the duvet, we are glad we met. Jude St Francis is – perhaps – one of the literally greatest you will ever encounter in modern literature, and you’ll be thinking about him long after you’ve closed A Little Life for the last time.