Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel is a stunning portrayal of friendship and attachment.
There is no way to reduce this work of art to a detached summary – the characters are as alive as the writer is. The brutal perceptions of how memory leaves invisible scars allow us to imagine we are on each individual protagonist’s endless reel of wire, going further and further back with them into the past.
This book is about suffering, and lots of it: just a warning.
It’s split into seven parts. Part I, Lispenard Street, develops the lives of four male post-graduate students. New York City is mapped out to hold what keeps our protagonists there – Lexington Avenue parents’ homes and theatre halls, a shared Brooklyn apartment, law offices and a rented art studio. The criss-crossing bohemian and cooperate worlds are convincing, enjoyable, accurate in their portrayal.
It reads like watching thread thicken into a fuller garment.
The interior lives of four friends in their twenties are formed thinly at first – the painter/socialite, JB. The aspiring, failing actor Willem. The sensible, wealthy architect, Malcolm. And then, there is Jude, whose voice we cannot reach yet, whose life does not appear in Part I to be as firmly rooted in their backdrop.
We aren’t provided with an internal – we aren’t allowed inside his head yet, and what we get to see from the others are broken, desperate shards of humanity glued together inside one painful body. We know from early on that Jude’s story is going to be raw. Caught up in his own suffering yet deeply invested in the friendships he has, his vulnerabilities and endless attempts at covering up his past draw significant responses from the others.
There’s a lot here thematically about attachments, and the lack of them, or the difficulties a character has with them when their past has been all about trauma bonds – Jude is an excellent tool for a writer to work with. It leaves us feeling as though Jude alone is the centre of their world, and how others react to him alone gives us enough information to judge them (just as his role as law student suggests).
From early on there’s this suspicion elicited from the reader that what we are going to see from the other three will be admirable or condemnable or somehow both.
Their collective responsibility for such a vulnerable human being highlights each individual’s bravery, manipulativeness, discomfort, or personal unresolved pain.
With this in mind, Willem’s tact can be taken as either gentle or reluctant, depending on where the border is for you between tentative and enabling. We hope that we are not being set up for a disappointment, that Willem will not respond to crisis’ with the same flatness of his emotionally distant parents. We can sense that there is some moral not-quite decision, some not-yet action to take against someone else’s suffering.
JB is bold, cut-throat, and I found his one-way, sometimes superficial bonds with his friends and the outside world comical and likeable. His transparently self-serving reactions are magically, deftly created by Hanya Yanagihara – you can tell she loves her characters – using this tone that most people who deal with a JB in real-life can recognise, some frustrated, amused despair.
“JB wore a perpetual expression of mild disbelief while at his job, both that he should be working at all and that no one had yet thought to recognise his special genius. He was not a good receptionist.”
The two creative, charismatic archetypes are somewhat calmed by architect Malcolm, whose influence over language turns the prose stiff, constructed like his drawings in a logical, efficient manner. Duller, but maybe more action-orientated than the others, there is the sense that a lot of truth will be grasped through his perspective. His weaknesses are easy to spot. His generosity too. This is a story about the gracefulness of human kindness as much as it is cruelty. Now we have these portraits there isn’t a thing that rightly should come as much of a revelation by ‘The Postman’, Part II – but of course, there are shocks anyway.
This is what The San Fransisco Chronicle had to say about it:
“A Little Life is about the unimaginable cruelty of human beings, the savage things done to a child and his lifelong struggle to overcome the damage. Its pages are soaked with grief, but it’s also about the bottomless human capacity for love and endurance . . . It’s not hyperbole to call this novel a masterwork – if anything that word is simply just too little for it”
I give this book 5/5 cups of tea and I haven’t even finished it yet – if you read books because they encompass the human experience of love and suffering, pull you deep enough to make you cry, you’ll have a place on your bookshelf ready for this. It’s funny, beautiful, heart-wrenching and traumatic to read – no wonder it was short-listed so quickly for the Man Booker Prize. Possibly one of, if not the, greatest books to come out of 2015!
All artwork used is RAFFI ANDERIAN ILLUSTRATION.