A LITTLE LIFE
By Hanya Yanagihara
Reviewed by Graeme Aitken
For twenty years, readers have been coming into the bookshop where I work and asking, ‘do you have another book like Timothy Conigrave’s memoir Holding the Man?’ And finally there is a 700 page novel by a Hawaiian-American female writer that might just fit the bill.
The success of Holding the Man is that ultimately it moves people – often to tears – and A Little Life succeeds in the same way. It is an extremely moving and at times harrowing story of the main character, Jude St. Francis, who as a child and teen experienced such extremes of physical and sexual abuse that he has been left not only with traumatic psychological scars, but also physically impaired to the point that he sometimes needs to use a wheelchair. What Jude endured is teased out slowly over the novel’s 700 pages – he is so traumatised, he shares his history with almost no one and so the other characters (like the reader) are in the dark. It is a shadowy mystery which keeps the reader turning the pages.
The novel follows Jude and his three best friends from a prestigious New England college, as they find their way and make their mark in New York City. They are a racially diverse crew, so diverse that Jude’s ethnic origins are an enigma, like so much else about him. He was abandoned as a baby and ‘raised by monks’, and that’s where his troubles began, though by no means ended. The novel is also an extremely well-observed portrait of urban professional Manhattan life, where most of the main characters are gay (or at least inclined to have sex with other men). It would spoil the story to reveal too much plot, but halfway through, it morphs into a very unconventional gay love story. This love story is necessary to help temper Yanagihara’s unflinching examination of various types of abuse (physical, verbal and sexual abuse, self-harm, domestic violence) and the scars that are left in its wake. The compassion and care that Jude inspires amongst his close knit circle of friends also works in a similar way, helping to offset the book’s grimmer moments.
This is unquestionably a monumental work − the superbly created cast of characters, the author’s resolute gaze, and the emotional sweep of the narrative make this a dark and disturbing but utterly compelling read.