Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara has been awaiting my attention, quietly on my Kindle, for well over a year. It is not the only book waiting there by a long way. It is, however, one of the few I have skimmed past a little too quickly and a little too often. It is one of those I frequently have glanced at and thought ‘Not now, the time isn’t right.’

It is probably the only book I have thought about deleting, unread.

In short the thought of this book has unnerved and, quite frankly, scared me.

As a teacher of young, vulnerable children, as a mother of four, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read this book. I couldn’t find a calm period in our hectic lives when I felt ready to handle the subject matter. When is a good time to tackle a book charting the lifelong effects of sustained and wide reaching childhood abuse? Never, it seemed.

I was also, consciously and subconsciously, questioning whether this book should even have been written. Was it morally right to make this kind of experience into fiction, into some kind of entertainment?

And yet this book has been recommended to me so many times, by so many people. And every time they have been people with kindness, compassion and intelligence at their very core. It was one of these readers who persuaded me to stop skimming past and take a chance.

So almost 2 weeks ago I took the chance. I promised myself I could break my unwritten rule and do the thing I find so inexplicably hard; DNF if need be.

I started to read.

On Saturday I finished, wondering as I reached the end why it was I had waited so long.

This book has taken me over a week to read. In a normal reading week I usually get through 2 -3 books. Practically giving up on TV and having a husband who works away in the week has seen my reading steadily increase in the past 2 years. A Little Life has taken me significantly longer to read than any other book in recent times. This is not to do with its 800+ pages, and everything to do with it’s message.

Even if I possessed days of free reading time I couldn’t have read this book any faster than I did. It was the intensity of this book, much more than it’s length, that slowed my pace. The feelings and empathy that were provoked within me demanded that I took time out. Time to break away, digest, grieve and reflect. This book is beautiful, powerful and for all that it is hard hitting and raw, and sometimes just too painful to assimilate.

At first glance this book is about the relationship between four college friends, at the beginning of their professional lives, living in NYC. Malcolm, a privileged black and talented young architect, trying to escape his parents shadow. Willem, a young actor, alone in the world after the death of his brother and parents. JB, a fiery gay artist, feted and pampered by his matriarchal family. Jude, a brilliant young lawyer, physically disabled, secretive and watchful.

Before too long the focus shifts to Jude, for this is Jude’s story. It is the story of his childhood trauma, abuse so complex and far reaching it touches every inch of his day to day life. His choice of apartment, choice of career; all touched by his past experiences.

This novel is possibly the most comprehensive and heartbreakingly powerful of portrait of abuse you likely to come across. Within it Yanagihara explores the lifelong relationship Jude has with self harm. She charts it’s accidental beginnings, how it becomes a way of using physical pain to reset his emotional terror. Crucially, she represents it’s non linear nature. This is not a static relationship, like other more acceptable and conventional bonds. Jude’s relationship with self harm ebbs and flows. It changes it’s form depending on opportunity and circumstance, but it never ends.

Throughout the novel we see Jude attempting to build circles of trust, investing in relationships that, despite his desperate desires, can never be complete due to his lack of self worth. His career sky rockets and yet he continues to views himself through the past’s tainted eyes. He feels a constant need to apologise, to justify and readjust, living with the ‘creature’ of abuse inside, always one step away from fight or flight. Even pleasure causes pain; his certain fear of when will the past catch up with the present is never far away. and often overwhelming.

The narrative also explores the complex relationship that exists between abused and abusers. We come to appreciate that when abuse has been not only sustained, but delivered at the hands of caregiver, then victims feel their personality is shaped by their experiences. Jude feels that some positive parts of his life can be attributed to his abuser, and this is an ongoing struggle of acceptance. Within this story is contained the very best and the very worst of human nature. There is rarely black or white, just deepening shades of grey, and thankfully some blinding flashes of lightness.

Survival from abuse is not portrayed as a simple upward recovery. For Jude, we read about many ‘rock bottoms’, many triggers, many simple solutions that turn out to be anything but. There are heart rending explorations of future relationships, where patterns of abuse repeat themselves in a way Jude sees as inevitable.

And yet Jude is not without kindness in his life. Throughout the novel, despite his difficulties, Jude has friends, people who care deeply. For the reader these characters fulfil a number of functions. On a practical level they allow us some perspective. They provide a break from the deeply complex nature of Jude’s life and thoughts. They allow us to breathe, pause and provide colour, sometimes humour. They are a mirror that reflect the best of Jude, reflecting his innate brilliance, intelligence and potential. They allow us to see beyond the abused individual and appreciate other qualities that define him.

More than this they are ripples in Jude’s pond. Their presence and reactions to his actions and thoughts allow Yanagihara to explore and portray, yet again, the real and far reaching effects of abuse. We see the ever patient Willem, his closest friend, accept the darkness within Jude and hold it lightly in his hand, waiting patiently for Jude to reveal his truths. Our heart breaks when Jude begs friends to kept terrible secrets, asking them to carry burdens too hard to bear.

I finished this book 4 days ago and before I could even begin to write any kind review I needed time to pause and reflect. Part of me wondered whether I was even able or entitled to write a review. Yet it was inevitable I would. This novel might have broke my heart multiple times but it won’t leave me in a hurry. Whether I have a produced a review to do it justice is entirely another matter.

Jude has been in my head pretty much constantly since I left his world. So many thoughts, perspectives and questions going round and round. And I have been returning again and again to the fact that Jude was a character, who despite his terrible experiences, was thrown the lifeline of opportunity. He was rescued, he was educated, he had people who believed in him, who advocated for him; good, unselfish friends who could see beyond the scars and kept coming back.

And I find myself asking “What of those who don’t have this opportunity? What becomes of those who don’t have advocates and aren’s rescued?”

Because that is the real tragedy of this book. The fact that this isn’t an isolated story, one that never happens in the real world. It does every day. And not all individuals, children or adults, have Jude’s opportunities. Not all have a voice, have ears that will listen, have the skills or financial support to find their path. What happens to those individuals?

And that is why Yanaghari and authors like her have the right to create such stories. In a recent Guardian article, Yanagahari suggest that her intention in writing this book was never to shock or provoke. She believes “that extreme lives exist and therefore should be present in literature.” So while abuse is some ones reality, some one has to keep documenting it, talking about it, bringing it into the public consciousness. Despite my initial concerns this book never feels gratuitous or exploitative. It does shock, take your breath away and makes you think, really think, about the unrelenting effects of abuse. It raise the stakes of awareness like nothing else I have yet encountered.

I would I recommend this book?

Yes, without a doubt, but not without some stipulations. Don’t read until you are ready. In all honest, by the end I was reading quickly, possibly even rushing to the conclusion. Not because this isn’t a ‘good’ book. It is beyond ‘good’. ‘Good’ doesn’t come close. I am still searching for the right word to sum up my feelings for this book. No, I was rushing to the end because I couldn’t quite bear it anymore. It was so intense, so absorbing, it was changing my mood.

But one day, when the time is right for you, spend a little time with Jude. He deserves his story to be heard.

Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life.

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