Books: A Little Life: a monumental, moving achievement
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara, Picador, €25.99
The tidal wave of Transatlantic praise which preceded this novel's European launch, followed by its appearance on the Man Booker longlist and the bookmakers' favourite seal of approval, perhaps explains the tepid appraisal it has received in these quarters. A Little Life is this Japanese-American's second novel. Her first, The People in the Trees, explored the gruelling subject of child abuse, from the perpetrator's point of view. In A Little Life, she flips the concept and we are instead shown the devastating legacy and inescapable shadow engendered by the sexual exploitation of innocence.
Opening in the tradition of her predecessors, Mary McCarthy, Meg Wurlitzer, Donna Tartt and others, with a quartet embarking on life, we are introduced to Willem, Jude, JB and Malcolm, who will go on to become, respectively (and indeed highly respected), actor, attorney, artist and architect. While the four become firm friends fast, it soon emerges that their differences are vast - not least in their various upbringings (Swedish farmhands; unknown; Haitian single parentage and bi-racial privilege); and yet the bonds formed in college remain strong enough to see them to New York and great success.
So far, so classic American Big Novel, until Yanagihara suddenly turns her laser focus away from vivid, mercurial JB and Malcolm (forever trying to please his disappointed father) and invites us to observe more minutely the intensely moving friendship developing between gorgeous (in every way) Willem and the aptly named Jude St Francis. The latter, successfully ascending the legal ladder, cuts himself in secret and thus begin the remembrances of a harrowing past. Disposed of as a baby in a bin, Jude is taken in by monks to their monastery where he suffers grievous mental and physical abuse; he escapes with avuncular Brother Luke who, instead of the promised happy-ever-after cabin in the woods, initiates him into an even more hideous world of depravity and degradation. And then it gets worse. For young Jude, 'there was only misery, or fear, and the absence of misery or fear, and the latter state was all he had needed or wanted.'
Yanagihara gives us respite from these agonising flashbacks, chronicling the personal and professional lives of the four men. Their various successes deliver the reader into the high octane worlds of Manhattan art, architecture and film, and the dazzle and glamour offered by these milieux act as panaceas to the pain which punctuates the narrative. Through the arcs of their lives and loves - their girl and boyfriends, their colleagues, their homes, their vacations and their addictions, the reader gets a pleasing distraction from the darkness of the longeurs into Jude's painful past. Thanksgiving acts as a leitmotif throughout, the benign hallmark of Americana offering redemptive relief from the baroque underbelly, viscerally yet never gratutiously, revealed.
A Little Life is writ big. Yanigahara turns up the volume, showing in stark monochrome the profound badness (more than once the text recalls Hannah Arendts' chilling phrase 'the banality of evil') and the innate goodness that exists in this world. Jude may have met with abomination along the way but this is - to an extent - ameliorated by the shining kindness of those who surround him: his patient, exasperated doctor Andy, Harold, the wonderful legal mentor who, in scenes which are almost unbearably poignant, adopts Jude, and sweet Willem. The relationship between Jude and Willem is central and one which Yanagihara handles with extraordinary deftness, grace and subtlety. She has spoken of her interest in friendship and the nature of it; this too though is a meditation on love and what it means to love, and how we love and the demands and sacrifices it makes of us, as well as the uplifting joy and solace it provides.
Yanagihara has been criticised both for her ahistorical context and for her relentless probing of brutality, but this novel was, for this reviewer, deeply allegorical. Her cleverness was to fashion a story that is at once profoundly painful yet counterpointed with acts of exceptional compassion and courage.
Above all, it is Yanagihara's uncompromising refusal to yield to Harold's benign interpretation of life, that is ultimately so moving. When Jude accidentally breaks a beloved heirloom, Harold reassures him "No matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully." And sometimes not.
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