Book Review: "A Little Life" is Emotionally Torturous
By Hanya Yanagihara
~ Light spoilers ~
Isn't it a great feeling, finishing a book?
It took me almost two full years to read A Little Life. I started it during my second-last semester of college, and ultimately put it down when my workload piled up. This 814 page monster stared at me for months on end, begging me to return to the hellish landscape of tears and hurt that I knew was awaiting me. Known as 'the most devastating book you will ever read', naturally, it was in my ballpark, but I underestimated it's power.
So I picked it back up during May of 2020, (quarantine book club bay-bee) and when I finished- well, I didn't feel like a winner.
A Little Life follows four college buddies from graduation to middle-age. You fall in love with Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB as you watch them struggle through addiction, family troubles, and poverty as they pursue their artistic careers in New York City. (Law, acting, architecture, painting.) The book centres on Jude- an orphan and mysterious lawyer with a limp, who suffers from severe nerve damage in his spine from a car accident he experienced as a kid.
What Jude refuses to tell anyone about is his deteriorating mental state, his destructive self-harm habit, and the years of unspeakable childhood physical and sexual abuse he endured.
Yanagihara set out to write a book about someone who never got better.
Jude does not get better. Orphaned and abused, Jude was brainwashed as a child to believe he's dirty and unworthy of love. Unfortunately, even though Jude collects a loving, supportive family throughout his adult years, even being adopted at 30 years-old- childhood trauma is lifelong.
In interviews, Yanagihara explains that with A Little Life, she wanted to explore the unfair societal expectation that mentally ill people should get "better". That through therapy, medication, family and friends, good exercise, and a balanced diet- the mentally ill should be able to live through their traumas and assimilate into what we view as "healthy living", but in reality, many people are unable to move past trauma and live comfortably.
What is a life worth if the one living it doesn't enjoy being alive? Do we have to have a happy life to have a worthy life?
This book is one of the most divisive pieces of literature I've ever read. Some people call it "the next great Gay American novel", and others call it "torture porn and unrealistic". Something that everyone agrees on, however, is that it's brilliantly written. While I can see both angles, and I want to warn anyone interested in A Little Life that it IS extremely graphic, I fall somewhere in the middle.
Do I wish Yanagihara saved a bit of my sanity and gave Jude a sliver of happiness? Yes.
Do I understand why she had to write A Little Life the way she did? Yes.
I tend to mentally divide A Little Life into two parts.
Part A: A make-shift family of four young, male, struggling art students trying to make it in the big city, and Part B: Jude recounting his childhood pain and suffering, only to be rewarded with more pain and suffering.
I'm not going to pretend to know what the "right" way of telling this story was. What I do know, is that as horrific as the events described in the book are, they're real. The events Jude is described to have gone through as a child and adolescent happen every day. Once a person is abused, predators can smell a victim. Unfortunately, the cycle tends to continue beyond the first instance, and many people just do not overcome their illness. It's a devastating fact, but a fact nonetheless.
I think the only difference between a book about a character reliving extreme trauma, and a character being exploited for trauma porn, is it's authenticity. Does A Little Life feel genuine, and does Yanagihara write with passion and love for her characters? Absolutely.
As rough as this book is, Part A was everything I had been needing at the time of reading it. I had been going through a rough patch, and in response I had started exploring a city I was a stranger to, trying new things and meeting new people. It was therapeutic for me at a time when I needed some help.
I see a lot of hope in A Little Life. One of Yanagihara's major themes throughout the novel is the unique love behind friendship- the only relationships we choose out of pure devotion, and how true families are built from mutual respect and care, not from blood.
This is a novel about the beauty of friendship. It's about Willem's, Malcolm's, JB's, Harold's, Julia's, Ana's, and Andy's continued devotion to Jude. It's about their belief in his worth and their refusal to let him succumb to his mind. Even a little life like Jude's- full of shame, pain, and incurable trauma, is a life worthy of love and opportunity.
I'm going to leave you with a conversation between Jude and Willem. Jude is at a period in his life when he's on extreme antibiotics that give him vivid nightmares, and it takes a few moments after he wakes up to return to reality.
“Sometimes he wakes so far from himself that he can’t even remember who he is. “Where am I?” he asks, desperate, and then, “Who am I? Who am I?”
And then he hears, so close to his ear that it is as if the voice is originating inside his own head, Willem’s whispered incantation.
“You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
“You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen.
“You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way.
“You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it.
“You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again.
“You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.”
~ I'm giving "A Little Life" 4/5 stars. I don't feel comfortable giving it a 5/5 because it has very little re-readability. The majority of my most precious books I could read year in year out- and those aren't light, fluffy subjects either. This is a book I could see myself reading once, maybe two more times in my life- but is that really a hindrance to it's quality, or proof of it's profound importance? Anyways, this is what I'm choosing. Deal with it. ~