I am something of a sensitive soul who absorbs other people’s feelings like a sponge. If you’re upset about the death of your hamster/that time ten years ago you fell down in front of your crush/worried about what to do with your weekend, I will listen to the out pouring from the deepest depths of your being and somehow I will react in a way which makes me experience those feelings too. So when two esteemed colleagues and friends advised, nae, warned me not to read a book, of course I took notice – but then obviously went and got a copy despite this. How could I miss out on such an intense human experience, or, how could I miss out on a book with so much buzz. Have you guessed the title? Once again I’m talking a few months too late on a glorious piece of literary fiction, the Man Booker shortlisted ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara. I don’t know where I stand on the whole ‘trigger warning’ debate (although if they were to become de rigueur you wouldn’t be able to see the front cover of this book for them) but my goodness, this novel could certainly carry a notice that you are likely to end this emotionally scarred.
Set almost completely in New York, but not at any given date making it somewhat timeless, we meet a tight knit group of friends who have formed their own family during their University years. Each of these young men offer something unique to their circle, and also to their chosen career field as they all excel in the paths they have chosen to follow. We quickly realise that one of these men, Jude, is the heart of this group, the one that keeps them together and working as a unit. The back storys of the other three, JB, Willem and Malcolm , are provided early on in the narrative so we are given a real sense of who these characters are and where they have come from. The complete opposite is the case for Jude, as the reader and his three friends meet him in a moment where only his future is up for discussion, his past clearly holding dark secrets that all are wary to try and broach. We follow the four through all the twists and turns of friendship over the years, right through to their elderly days, the whole while watching as Jude’s painful past becomes writ large on his person, his body put through unendurable amounts of self abuse.
If I could have read some of this book peeking through my fingers I would have, my heart was so heavy with utter sadness as with each act of self loathing we gradually begin to learn of Jude’s past. The novel took me on that cliche of a roller coaster, but there really is no better way to describe it. I was so heavily invested in these men, two in particular, that the moments of joy and sadness felt as real to me as that of a friend. Discussing it with another reader we couldn’t help but enthusing over Yanagihara’s prose, so masterful and intensly literary, so beautifully constructed I almost forgot I was reading. There has been criticism of the unlikely heights all four reach in their careers and the melodramatic feel of the novel. For the former, I think this is less unlikely than some first claim, we only need to look at the alumni who emerge from the like of the footlights club to see that sometimes talent attracts talent, and this happens with people from all different fields. The latter, well yes, the book is melodramatic and Yanagihara has made no bones about this, but I never felt this detracted from the novel, I was so wrapped up in this world of relationships in all their guises that the heightened emotions and rolling events made perfect sense. The topics broached are difficult ones but they are handled sensitively and more importantly, honestly. I’ve studied and experienced some of the difficulties Jude faces in his life and I was taken a back by how well these are written about, emotions that feel like they could never possibly be explained are there in black and white on the page in front of you. It was a relief to see an author taking the responsibility of telling these stories seriously and truthfully. In the end I understand why my friends gave me those warnings about this book, they are my own personal trigger detectors, but I’m so glad I dove in anyway. I gained so much from this beautiful story and will never forget it, for me a book can be one of the safest places to approach a difficult topic and help me as a reader work through the ensuing emotions. It’s rare a novel weighing in at over 700 pages feels like a quick read, but I was so lost in this tale I never wanted it to end. I feel loathe to compare this novel to any other as it stands alone as a great piece of fiction, but if I had to I would say the last read that produced similar feelings would be that of ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt.
I can’t recommend enough that you give over your reading hours to this tale – but have tissues, chocolate and a glass of wine at hand, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara £16.99 (Picador)