Thursday, 3 September 2015

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

This is a book that gets under your skin in a million little ways; a book that demands to be read; a book which you simply have to keep reading, and even when you stop to do something else, is there in your mind, the story and characters ticking away, urging you to go back to them.

A Little Life is, at the beginning, about four college friends, but really it is all about just one of them: Jude. Once I reached the end of this immense, heart-wrenching story, though, I began to reassess: rather than being about Jude, it’s ultimately, perhaps, about the relationship between Jude and Willem. Because, if anything endures from our lives, if anything lives on beyond us, then surely it is the relationships we form around us, and the impact we have upon other people’s lives.

I’d heard that this book was breathtaking and should be read, but that it was depressing. It is breathtaking and it should be read, but it’s not depressing: if anything, it is incredibly sad, but even this is certainly not all that it is. It is everything; it is life encompassed. Hanya Yanagihara has an amazing power of observation, especially of people, and the book is full of little things that strike home and made me think, yes, that is so right; and it has made me re-evaluate how I think about my own friends and the relationships we share, how not everyone thinks or is able to respond to things the same way that I do.

In the first section of the book we hear only from Malcolm and Willem and JB: what we know about Jude, we only know from them, and I was expecting this style of storytelling to continue, so was pleasantly surprised when Jude’s voice is introduced in part two, followed swiftly by another change to a mix of first and second perspective storytelling, care of a fifth key character. It was interesting to me that as Jude’s ‘little life’ progresses, Malcolm and JB begin to take a back seat, and we only rarely hear from them again other than through Willem and Jude.

Jude is a conundrum: on the surface, in his professional life, he is so assured and confident and capable, but underneath he suffers such turmoil. He is impossibly, unimaginably damaged, and as his secrets are gradually, devastatingly revealed, Yanagihara paints what feels to be an unutterably true portrait of how it must be to be stuck inside the head of a person who feels about himself and believes about himself the things that Jude believes, in spite of all that the people who love him try to tell him otherwise. He is not haunted by ghosts so much as by hyenas. When he is young he seems mostly to be able to lock them away, but as he gets older they begin to truly start clattering about, demanding to be felt, and only one person has the power to help him tame them – or partially tame them, at any rate. I found myself thinking, if only he would speak about it, but the worse it gets, the harder it seems to become for him to articulate the things that haunt him.

The lives of Jude and Willem and Malcolm and JB are strangely, seemingly timeless. As I began reading, the story felt contemporary, that it begins perhaps now, or perhaps, at a stretch, in the nineties, but surely no further ago than that (though maybe it is simply my own vantage point that controls this; someone else might imagine a different decade). Yet, as I read, and the characters grew older and I knew that time was passing, it stills feels like it is the same; no future world is imagined here, it is all the present. And even the characters – even though I knew they were now forty, forty-five, fifty – seemed in my mind to be the same in age and looks and appearance as when they were twenty. Perhaps this is the conundrum of being an adult, though, for even as I know I am getting older, that my appearance must surely be changing, I find it hard to believe. I still feel the same; I still feel like me, not some older version of me.

As well as the concept of experience and how this shapes our lives, I also found interesting the question of healing and the human fixation on fixing things, whether physical things or mind things. That, after all, is why we have shrinks: to fix ourselves, to fix others; the idea that we all need to be perfect and whole. But what if something cannot be fixed, what if it is so deeply imbedded within the soul that it simply is; perhaps then the only way to fix it is to acknowledge and accept it and find a way to live with it, to work with it, to reduce it’s ripple effect rather than fruitlessly attempting to eradicate it. Acceptance, sometimes, is everything. This is an idea that has been touched upon in several books I’ve come across recently in terms of physical health, and it’s an idea that I try and try again to apply to myself. And so to see it here, so beautifully considered, is wonderful too.

As Jude ages, the things that matter changes: from being safe, to being loved, to the question of legacy. This is what A Little Life does: it incorporates a lifetime; even as things stay still, so do they change; the progression of thought and understanding and also, not-understanding. Our lives may be little, but they are also big.

This book absolutely deserves all the praise it is receiving. The words will become blurry with tears as you read and yet it is somehow wonderful, full of real things and real feelings that burst upon you with every page and every turn of events. It is beautiful and sad and truly extraordinary.

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