Book Review: A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

Wow. This book is…. Well it’s a lot.

I don’t remember how I came across this book. Probably a recommendation from someone, or off a list somewhere. I borrowed it from the library (if you aren’t borrowing ebooks from the library, you should start) and I’m halfway through.

Halfway, I think, is about as far as I’m going to get.

First: it’s relatively long. I’m used to long books. I generally like them because once I get into the story, if it’s good, I can stay with it for a long time. In this case, however, the length portends not hours of joyful immersion, but sorrow instead.

Second: I’m not quitting because it’s not a good story. To the contrary: the story is timeless, poignant, and beautifully written. That’s actually the problem.

The novel tells the story of four friends. We begin around the time they meet in college, and the first section of the book follows one, then another, giving us a sense of their personalities and how they blend into friendship together. We learn of their weaknesses and desires, the simple pleasure they take in each other’s company, and their lives as they grow together into successful young professionals. That element reminds me of Mayflies, a novel my book club chose a few cycles back that tells the story of five young men, romping through a weekend of concerts in Manchester in the eighties. Mayflies ends in bittersweet tragedy as one of the five chooses death with dignity over suffering from cancer and the other four must rally to celebrate his life and support his decision.

A Little Life, however, is bittersweet throughout. One of our four friends, Jude St Francis, had a childhood riddled with trauma until he turned 16 and went off to college. Abandonment, belittlement, beatings and sexual abuse by a multitude of adults and fellow orphans, human trafficking, medical trauma, incidents that get worse and worse as he grows up until finally he is crushed by a car driven deliberately and purposefully by yet another violent abuser. This story is told through a series of flashbacks, each one worse than the last.

That’s the bitter.

When we meet him, he has been befriended by three young men who learn to care deeply for him, even as he refuses, year over year, to divulge any of his history. Without knowing that he was beaten and raped repeatedly throughout his childhood, they tolerate his flinching and cageyness with nothing more than raised eyebrows. They offer their love and companionship, they become protective, while simultaneously respecting his refusal to share. His abuse has given him a limp and lifelong pain, sometimes so severe he can’t move, or even breathe well. Instead of infantilizing him, his friends simply let him be with them, accommodating both his resistance to using a wheelchair, and the wheelchair itself with equal acceptance mostly, most of the time.

And there is the sweet.

The sweet is beautiful. Yanagihara’s prose is dripping with imagery, vivid, both passionate and devoid of judgement. She observes her characters loving each other. She frequently refers to the pleasure these men take in each other’s company. They aren’t lovers together, at least not for the most part. They build lives independently of each other. But they never lose their bonds.

Representations of men’s platonic yet loving relationships are sparse. Many of my clients, and some of my guy friends, have shared how difficult it is to share with and trust other men. Few of the adult men I know have even one other man in their lives with whom they feel comfortable being vulnerable. There’s no one to talk to about their sexuality, their loneliness, their insecurities… though Jude takes many many years before he begins to open up, he is surrounded by others who are secure in their place, who open up and share the secrets of their lives with their close friends, both male and female.

I kept expecting everyone to be gay and start hooking up. Kept expecting this big romantic love story to emerge, but, at least outside of the flashbacks, the emphasis was on men loving men, without needing to have sex with them in order to justify it.

And at every turn the words on the page made me feel. Happy, mostly, eager to see, to visualize, the next moment. I felt joy, pleasure, rueful, invested in the relationships and found myself caring for all of them, even when they each screwed up, had to ask forgiveness, received it, or sometimes didn’t.

Which is why I had to stop. Jude’s background is awful. With every page his back story gets more and more horrific. It’s not like Lolita where abuses happen off-screen (or so I’m told. I  have thus far refused to read it), in A Little Life each time Jude-the-child ends up somewhere that Jude-the-adult knows does’t end well, you-the-reader are there, watching in exquisite detail. As much as I would love to keep reading, to soak in the sense of loving, being loved, and belonging that Jude-the-adult has, I can’t.

I might be able to, if it had a happy ending, but it doesn’t. I know that sometimes life works like that, and I understand that Yanagahira is writing an inescapable truth: that trauma is forever. She tells us with every scene that what we learn as children will always be part of us, and that functional isn’t enough when it comes to treating it as an adult.

Perhaps I’m taking away the wrong message. Perhaps if I finished it, I would draw different themes from the pages. I wish I could. If you enjoy difficult books with difficult scenes, if you are someone able to observe a story without seeing it in your dreams and feeling it in the pit of your stomach, or if you can find pleasure in the juxtaposition of hope and the crushing of it, then this book is for you. I plan to try something else she’s written, to try and experience her prose without disappointment and sorrow at the end.

But I wanted to write about this one, first. I said before that we so rarely see representations of men being emotionally intimate with each other. Though the relationships depicted are flawed, some last longer than others, the people in them make mistakes and some of them don’t make it better, though they end in sorrow, they exist. Yanagahira is as relentless reminding us of the pleasure they take in each other’s company as she is in showing us where they came from.

Though I’m not finishing this book, and the fact pains me a bit, I did enjoy what I got through, and I look forward to seeing where her gorgeous prose takes her when it’s not barreling toward despair.

Update on 6/4/24: I finished it after all. Sure enough, I took away a slightly different message, one leaning more toward compassion and dignity than hopelessness. Turns out I had already made it past the worst of his past, though his later days were in some ways worse. Still, it was worth it.

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