Unbearable and uplifting: The illogical pleasure of reading A Little Life By Hanya Yanagihara

hanya-yanagihara-a-little-lifeIt must say something about the impact Hanya Yanagihara’s novel “A Little Life” has on its readers, that random strangers came up to me, while I was reading it, to offer their praise.

“You should persevere with it, it’s an amazing book,” said one bloke as he got off the train, when I was only about fifty pages in.

Then, a few weeks later: “It’s so good. I’ve only got 20 minutes left to read on my Kindle and I don’t want it to end,” enthused a mother with two children as our train pulled into Melbourne.

After finishing it myself, and being equally affected by its power, I perused the internet for reviews and comments.

Quickly I realised  those random strangers and I were not alone.

Almost anyone who has read Yanagihara’s 720 page epic, about four close male friends – one of whom is a survivor of horrific sexual abuse – making their way in  New York after college has been similarly jolted.

Jon Michaud’s review in the New Yorker gave a succinct summary of its principal effect: “Yanagihara’s novel can drive you mad, consume you and take over your life.”

“I will genuinely never recover from reading A Little Life,” wrote another fan on Twitter.

When I finished reading A Little Life, I felt that sense of nostalgia, sadness and loss that comes with experiencing all great works of art be it a book, movie or piece of music.

I was as if I had been taken on an exhilarating ride – one of pain and suffering, but also of great joy and love – and then it had all come to an end and the characters had exited the stage, leave me and my world view irrevocably altered.

To summarise briefly the plot , four close college friends Jude St Francis, JB, Willem and Malcolm find themselves living in New York and trying to make their way as lawyer, artist, actor and architect respectively. All are bright and brilliant in their own way.

The book chronicles their steps up the professional ladder, the shifting dynamics of their friendship, their on and off romantic relationships, their shifting social circles and the changes they undergo from unsure twenty something’s to fifty-year-old successful men. All set against the backdrop of a modern, but timeless New York.

While this may hardly sound like the plot for a the “Great American Novel” what sets the book apart is Yanagihara’s ability to get inside the head of someone who has survived appalling sexual abuse in their childhood and how they learn to cope with its scars as adults.

This she does through the devastating brilliant character of Jude St Francis, whose childhood as an orphan raised by monks is so unimaginable cruel and painful that it is something of a miracle he survived at all.

Not only that but Jude suffers from a chronic pain and debilitating back spasms – due to an automobile attack he endured aged 15 – that leave him writhing on the floor in agony.

But he has learnt to cope, both with the sense of shame he feels about the past, the memories of these events which haunt him and his pain. This coping mechanism is to cut himself with razors, behaviour which shocks his friends and family, but which he is unable to stop even as he runs out of space on his arms, and finds himself cutting through “tough, webby scar tissue”.

Despite his tragic upbringing (which Yanagihara reveals in long flashbacks) Jude does more than just survive, he becomes a success.

Blessed with a brilliant legal and mathematical mind, he ends up becoming a top litigator at a major Manhattan corporate law firm even as his physical pain worsens and the mental scars refuse to heal. 

Whilst those closest to him – his best friend and later lover Willem and his adopted parents Harold and Julia – try to heal his deep emotional wounds, and his faithful doctor Andy, treats his weeping sores, failing legs and other bodily injuries, it is only Jude himself  who can keep the demons and ghosts of his past a bay, or give in and let them consume him.

And this almost biblical journey of Jude’s-  into and out of the light – is what drives the narrative of Yanagihara’s opus, and gives it is remarkable power.

Ultimately, the message of Yanagihara’s devastating book, I think, is our inability to escape the events that shaped us as children, but also that we can as adults transcend those events, even if those moments remain fleeting.

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