When I was given a copy of this much-lauded, lengthy book at the beginning of the summer my heart sank slightly. I’d read so much hype about this challenging blockbuster novel that I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to read it. A close friend put me off further by declaring that she had given up half way through as she found it too gruelling and unrelenting. However, relaxing on holiday in sleepy Somerset, I braced myself and began what turned out to be an exhausting and harrowing yet profoundly moving novel.
A Little Life has its flaws. It’s somewhat slow at the beginning, could be accused of lacking realism and subtlety at times and is sometimes overwritten and repetitive. But it is quite simply one of the most hauntingly beautiful books about friendship I have ever read. Yes, it is a devastatingly upsetting, dark and often traumatic read. But it is also a beautifully written elegy celebrating close friendship. Yanagihara explores the idea of friendship enabling us to choose life over death; of friendship transforming terrible pain into intense joy. We all need to experience such friendships in our lives.
Setting his story in New York, Yanagihara tells the story of four university friends as they navigate the wider world. Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude meet as classmates at a small Massachusetts college. The novel follows their journey post college to New York, where they are broke and rudderless, held together only by their enduring friendship and differing ambitions. The withdrawn, brilliant and enigmatic Jude serves as their centre of gravity. As the decades pass and these increasingly high-achieving four young men move towards middle age, their relationships wax and wane, as do their differing careers. But it is the talented yet increasingly damaged Jude who is the greatest challenge of all their lives.
The novel gradually narrows its focus onto Jude’s life as we learn more and more of his terrible, unspeakable and haunting past. We watch Malcolm, JB and Willem, driven by their unconditional love for him, try to help Jude free himself from the unrelenting horrors of his past. Their determination to help this flawed yet wonderful man overcome his emotional and physical childhood abuse dominates the latter half of the novel.
For me, A Little Life’s success lies in its compelling portrayal of the raw, deeply complex nature of humanity. A tender yet painful love story about the true meaning and grace of friendship, it left me profoundly moved.
A Little Life, is published by Picador, 640 pages