At first I was daunted by the sheer size of this novel; a tidal wave of pages rising up from my bedside table. My copy was over 700 pages and I was forced to heft it around in a backpack for weeks as my medium size handbag was nowhere near big enough. Despite the promise of depressing themes; sexual abuse, suicide, addiction, depression to name a few, and the uncomfortable size, I was spurred on to read A little life by the multitude of rave reviews as well as its inclusion on the Man Booker shortlist in 2015.
A few pages in and I couldn’t put A little life down. I was drawn to the lives of the four young men living in New York that Yanagihara introduces in her opening chapters; gentle Willem who is a struggling actor, dominant Jean-Baptiste, also known as JB who is finding his feet as an artist, architect Malcolm, and then quiet Jude, who suffers intense pain from an accident as a teenager. At first it isn’t clear who, if any, of these young men is the main character, but then mysterious Jude emerges as the novel’s focus, the other characters playing supporting roles in his life story.
Despite his successful career as a fearless lawyer and the constant love and support from his friends, Jude is unable to ignore the demons set on him from childhood. The abuse he suffered is as part of him as his horrific scars. Unable to trust in any one completely, Jude is convinced that if his friends knew the truth about his past they would be disgusted with him, and so he lives a life of physical and emotional pain.
The takeaway message from Yanagihara is that throughout life’s search, the most important part of living is love and friendship. As the characters grow from young men in their 20s to adults in their 60s, they each never stop trying to figure themselves out. They are still searching for meaning as adults. In Jude’s story, Yanagihara constantly counts up the friends and adopted family who love him unconditionally, the people who have chosen time and again to stand by him and take care of him, even when he refuses help. It is these beautiful characters and their lives that make A little life special. In between Jude’s suffering, Yanagihara has worked hard to make each supporting character real, nuanced, flawed, and original.
Reading A little life made me want to hate the author for her cruel punishment of Jude. The pain she inflicts on this sweet character is so harrowing it affected my sleep. Some scenes are graphic in their depiction of sexual abuse and self harm. Jude’s life feels like a relentless series of atrocities that will make you wonder how one person could be so unfortunate. At one point while reading I called out No!, as if the sound could somehow change the events printed in black and white. This is proof of Yanagihara’s enormous skill as a writer, to make her reader love a character so much that I wanted to reach out and protect Jude as if I were one of his best friends, or his adopted parents Harold and Julia, or his dedicated doctor Andy. Like them, I wanted so badly for Jude to accept and love himself as much as I loved him.