Until a few years ago, I had little interest in contemporary fiction. Now I’ve completed another gamechanger – a book that finds astonishing depths in suffering and the efforts to make it tolerable.
A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara is an ordinary story of extraordinary people, an extraordinariness that grows over the long stretch of 700+ pages.
A watertight group of four graduates (Ivy League, we presume) all begin with the same struggles: trying to find their breakthrough in New York as actors, artists, or architects. Finding a place in adult life is not just getting on the career ladder but also finding motivation, dealing with parents’ expectations, or appeasing a law professor who champions civil over corporate practice.
After a slow-burning introduction to each of the four, the focus becomes firmly set on Jude St Francis, whose past remains a mystery apart from clear physical damage that manifests itself into dark shades of psychological trauma, along with cutting and eventual attempts at suicide.
This gripping novel is one that depends on patience. The stages of Jude’s disturbing past gradually unravel, with scenes of unremitting torture and abuse that repress his adolescence. His reluctance to talk to a kindly counsellor called Ana, whom we later discover that he meets after the worst incident, is a mistake that cannot be undone or overcome.
So, it’s left to his friends, adoptive parents, and eventual lover to try and coax Jude into trust and self-acceptance, something that only has the chance to work over the course of many years. Such a long book allows for an exploration of whether time really is a healer.
A hard truth to take is that it might not be. Things might just keep getting worse. A passage of violent abuse Jude experiences as an adult makes me angry. The offender finds such sadistic enjoyment at his power over Jude that he risks an encounter in a restaurant to compound the humiliation. I imagine sickening plot twists of revenge just to recalibrate my emotional compass.
Are these encounters just appalling bad luck? We’re left asking whether victims somehow attract the abuse that finds them, and how the pieces can be picked up time and again when a mindset of self-loathing and self-blame keeps being reaffirmed in devastating ways.
The novel is an exercise in bad things happening behind closed doors and the helplessness felt by those who observe. Jude’s professional life is exemplary and uncompromising – a litigator, partner and eventual chairman of one of the state’s biggest law firms. It’s the most successful mask to any life played out in private.
For decades, those around him respect his decision to avoid psychiatrists, but it’s often a fine line. Jude’s doctor, Andy, who for the most part knows the most about him, is a straight-talking, slightly aggressive, yet ever-dependable force. “The asshole is dead. Pancreatic cancer = major suffering.” He’s also a measured exploration of why doctors should and should not treat their friends.
Making the most of this book requires the ability to overlook any context that’s not important to its characters. They get older in a world that doesn’t; email and mobile phones are just about the only technological intrusion. There’s an absence of contemporary politics.
A Little Life is a solipsistic drift into the journey of a set of characters for whom each other are the most important. It lacks realism, yet is not unreal. This could be a true story. The degree to which we want to believe it or not perhaps says more about our faith in the sort of unyielding friendship that somehow feels less possible in this day and age.
It’s a novel about an endless plague of suffering to the exclusion of almost everything else, and how the purest, most human form of love makes inroads on the tug-of-war without a hope of winning.
How does one come back from layer upon layer of abuse? Maybe some can. Some never will. The struggle and search for hope that keeps finding the light then losing it again is touchingly recreated by Jude’s late hallucinations – a glassiness that keeps a lost world at bay. Like the beautiful Still Life (2013), the glimpses of redemption come too late, and just as they do, fate intervenes.
The book’s central turmoil persists to the bitter end; a fight over a sandwich puts Jude at his most hard-fought inner peace in many a hundred pages. Then the author decides her winner.