With themes of child sex abuse and self harm, of emotional and physical damage, A Little Life can, in the truest sense, be considered a dreadful novel. Every time I opened it I was filled with a deep sense of foreboding as the story unfolded of a boy unable to lay to rest the nightmare of a childhood during which he was systematically abused by the very people who were meant to care for and protect him. And yet I wanted to read on… and on …. and on.
The first few pages give little hint of the darkness to come. Four university friends Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude have made their way to New York to pursue their ambitions. Malcolm, son of a wealthy family, is intent on becoming an architect; Willem has his eyes on a career on the stage but in the meantime works as a waiter; JB dabbles in experimental art through really wants to be a representational painter and Jude works as a public defense lawyer. Success comes relatively quickly: film star status for the kind, handsome Willem, MOMA exhibitions for bad-boy JB; international design projects for Malcolm and partnership in a leading law practice for Jude St Francis.
Slowly we discover there is a shadow over Jude’s life. The most reticent of the quartet, we get hints of a secret in his life about which he has never spoken. They may explain why he has problems walking and negotiating staircases; why he always keeps his body hidden and why he never talks about his school days or his parents.
Eventually he reveals to Willem, the member of the quartet to whom he is closest, that he regularly cuts himself. Further revelations are drip fed through the course of the novel’s 700 pages. We learn the specifics of the abuse Jude suffered in his early years and of the torments he now suffers as a result. Unflinching in tackling a subject in a way that makes us squirm, Yanigahara nevertheless edges away from gratuitous wallowing in detail.
This then is a portrait of an emotionally and physically damaged man and of the friends who try to stand between him and the demons that haunt him. They love him, shield him and — when needed (which happens frequently) — rush to his aid. They invite him to their homes, to parties celebrating their awards; to intimate family gatherings: Jude is loved by all of them. Especially Harold, his former law professor who adopts him as a replacement for a dead son. And especially Willem; flat mate, confidante and would-be lover. But none of them cannot eradicate Jude’s past because that would require Jude to disclose what he cannot reveal for fear the life he has constructed would collapse. At one point in his life a social worker advised him:
You have to talk about these things while they’re fresh. Or you’ll never talk about them. It’s going to get harder and harder the longer you wait, and it’s going to fester inside you, and you’re always going to think you’re to blame.
But such is the intensity of Jude’s feeling of shame that talking about his past is one thing he can never do. He’s too afraid his friends will despise him and abandon him when all he wants is to be loved
… to feel someone else’s hands on him, although the thought of that too terrifies him. Sometimes he looks at his arms and is filled with a self-hatred so fiery that he can barely breathe: Much of what his body has become has been beyond his control, but his arms have been all his doing, and he can only blame himself.
His physical debilitation and his mental despair are at times unendurable yet he is not without a capacity to hope …
… maybe, he thinks, maybe it isn’t too late. Maybe he can pretend one more time, and this last bout of pretending will change things for him, will make him into the person he might have been. He is fifty-one; he is old. But maybe he still has time. Maybe he can still be repaired.
A Little Life is thus a profoundly moving book but one that is not without it’s flaws. It’s overly long and verbose in places for one thing; it contains some truly inelegant sentences and smilies and odd switches of tense from one paragraph to another. The characters all seem impossibly good and kind: how many doctors do you know who can be instantly available at any time of day or night? how many artists manage to get MOMA status though their whole body of work consists of paintings of the same three people? They also live in a bit of a time warp – years flash by with such little (if any) reference to world events, to wars, elections, terrorist attacks, fashion changes that we can’t tell for sure in which period this novel is set.
Despite that A Little Life is still exceptional; the kind of novel that you still want to keep reading even though you’re aware it still has room for improvement. Will it win the Man Booker Prize for 2015? It depends whether the judges also look past those flaws and agree with the critic in The New Yorker who described A Little Life as ‘brilliantly subversive” or whether they feel ultimately (as did The New York Times) that it’s over-long and contrived.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara is published by Pan Macmillan/Picador. I received a copy in return for an honest review. If you’re interested in learning more about this book take a look at the interview with Hanya Yanigahara for The Millions.
Blogger reviews of A Little Life that are worth checking out:
The Man Booker judged announced today that A Little Life has been shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize. One step closer to the ultimate prize. We’ll find out October 13 if it gets the title.