A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Image result for a little lifeA Little Life is an ambitious brick of a novel, running beyond 700 pages. A lot of the incidents it describes are small and seemingly inconsequential moments, and yet others have such a monumentally huge impact on the characters that they are shaped by them for the rest of their lives. The book's length might seem intimidating for a novel which, in fact, has little in the way of plot, but I found A Little Life so utterly compelling that I struggled to put it down, even during its most bleakly tragic moments.

It's the story of four men who meet in their late teens at their prestigious New England college before moving to New York, where their lives intertwine for the next forty years. All of them become highly successful in their own fields - Malcolm as an architect, JB as a critically acclaimed painter, Willem as a star of stage and screen and Jude as an exceptionally talented corporate lawyer. We're introduced to all four of them, one by one - and then we gradually realise that one of them, Jude St Francis, is somehow the glue that holds them together, and the book becomes his story.

Without family of any kind and largely silent on his background (even his ethnicity seems as much a mystery to him as it is to everyone else), Jude is, quite clearly, physically and mentally broken by his past. He adds to the almost constant pain he already suffers from a disablingly serious 'car injury' by compulsively self-harming and jumps at physical contact from others. And yet he is so kind, so quietly intelligent and sincerely charming, that his friends are utterly determined to accept, protect and love him at all costs.

It's this bond between the four men, this loyalty and acceptance, that prevents A Little Life from being a relentlessly miserable read. It's fair to say that this book is absolutely not a barrel of laughs: Jude's story, of which we learn in flashbacks, is one of seemingly endless pain, abuse, sorrow and emotional betrayal. This isn't even a book about recovery - far from it. It's abundantly clear that Jude will never recover, and that terrible things continue, repeatedly, to befall people who utterly do not deserve them. I don't think it's an accident that Jude shares his name with the patron saint of lost causes: he has suffered in ways that have irreversibly damaged him, body and soul. And perhaps most tragically of all, he is all too aware of this. His refusal to listen to his doctor or his friends when they urge him to see a therapist is characteristic of his stubbornness, but there's a sense that he simply knows it will be waste of time and that the pain of relating what has happened to him will likely outweigh the benefits of treatment. Rather than being self-destructive, his decision seems to stem more from a sense of resignation.

I don't think it's a spoiler to say that sexual abuse is at the root of Jude's mental health problems - in fact, I think it would be irresponsible of me not to mention it, because this book would potentially be an extremely traumatic experience for certain readers if they weren't aware of this in advance. That said, a number of the reader reviews I've seen have warned that the accounts of sexual abuse in this book are 'graphic' - which they're not, really. It's made abundantly clear what happens to Jude, and in spare, plain terms, but there is no description of the acts themselves, or references to body parts and so on. The fact that readers came away with the impression that the text was graphic in this regard suggests to me that, as in the case of horror films, what isn't described often leaves more of an impression than what is.

And yet, despite all this, this a deeply touching book. Apart from JB, Malcolm and most of all Willem - the relationship between Jude and Willem is at the heart of the book - there are others who rally around Jude. Harold and Julia, Jude's college tutor and his wife, have a genuine, unconditional love for him that sings from the page. Andy, his doctor, treats him for every ailment, even those outside his specialism as a consultant, because he understands that Jude simply can't trust anyone else. I can't think of many novels about male friendships and I certainly can't think of one that deals with male friendships in the way that this one does. There is a tenderness to the relationships between the four men that's rarely seen in mainstream fiction.

The novel's setting is curiously timeless. There are no references to world events - it's set in New York but there's no mention of 9/11 happening, for example and despite the story's timespan, which if you include the flashbacks is well over 50 years, everything that happens feels as if it's occurring in a perpetual present day. I think this works well - it means there are no distractions from the 'little life' of the title. Is it the 'little life' the existence that Jude manages to carve out for himself, those fleeting moments of happiness he experiences? Or does the title refer to that jarring discrepancy between the huge meaning that a life has for the people close to it and its ultimately tiny significance in the context of humanity as a whole?

In some ways, A Little Life is one of the most heartbreaking books I've ever read, and let despite its conclusion there were times when I found it oddly life-affirming. Jude may be a lost cause in terms of his recovery, but the degree to which those close to him never abandon him to his fate gives a deeply sad story a slight undercurrent of hope.