A little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I read this book over three days.  And when I’d finished, I was numb.  Not because the ending was unexpected, but because I wanted it to be different.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“Our parents are dead,” said Willem, swiftly.

Four classmates graduate and move from a small Massachusetts college to New York.  Willem is an aspiring actor, JB is an artist, Malcolm is an architect and Jude is a lawyer.  We will spend the next the three decades or so, in a world devoid of external historical events, with these characters.  We’ll see their relationships with each other change as their lives change.   But the central character is Jude, the lawyer, whose success in the present is constantly in threat of being overwhelmed by his past.

We learn a little about the lives of Willem, JB and Malcolm, but initially Jude is an enigma.  We know that he has difficulty walking at times, we see that he is uncomfortable with physical contact.  What we will learn, in what will be a long roller-coaster ride through Jude’s life, is why.

This is not a novel for every reader.  Jude’s story is horrific in parts.  Jude’s suffering has left him with both physical and psychological consequences.  Despite his achievements, he can never believe himself worthy of love.  He never sees himself as good enough.  Jude is fortunate in that he has so many people who care for him deeply, and tragically unfortunate in that he cannot accept that he has any entitlement to happiness.

I found this novel terribly sad.  In Jude, Ms Yanagihara has depicted the deeply troubled life that at least some sufferers of child abuse will relate to, and weep for.  She has also captured beautifully the lengths to which some people will go to help Jude, including Harold and his wife Julia, Willem, and Andy.

Each life is little.  Each life is significant: good or bad, and often good and bad.  For this novel, the external historical world is unimportant.  It’s how humans have been treated, how they’ve treated each other, how they care (or not) for others.  It’s about love and friendship, and the sad but sobering reality that the past is never far from the present. This is not a perfect novel: some love it, some loathe it but I doubt that many readers would be indifferent to it.  For myself, I love it, hate it and admire it.  I love the way that Ms Yanagihara brought (most of) her characters to life.   I hate the fact that Ms Yanagihara could not magically (but unrealistically) deliver a different outcome – a ‘happy ever after despite the odds’ ending.  I admire Ms Yanagihara’s skill in dealing with a number of difficult issues in a way which felt (to me at least) realistic.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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