Thursday 7 January 2016

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

One of the books shortlisted for 2015's Man Booker Prize, A Little Life appeared to be the favourite to win but ultimately lost out to Marlon James' History of Seven Killings. Hanya Yanagihara tells the story of a group of friends living in New York, starting out as college graduates beginning their careers, and seeing them through several decades. Charismatic but unpredictable artist J.B. and architect Malcolm, but really focuses on kind-hearted actor Willem and most of all Jude, who never speaks of his past, and is something of an enigma. The first section gave a very relatable depiction of people in their late twenties still trying to figure out what it means to be an adult.

Yanagihara uses an interesting mixture of narrative voices: first and third person, with a touch of second as well, to give a variety of perspectives of Jude's "little life." When shown from Jude's own point of view, he is not named - which can prove a little confusing when he is only identified with a shared pronoun "he," although for the most part it is kept fairly straightforward. This technique indicates his lack of self-regard, self-importance or even sense of a personal identity. Jude and his friends are a tight-knit circle but not an exclusive friendship. As the years go by, relationships between the quartet change, get strained and fixed, drift apart in adulthood but always share their bond. Yet J. B. Malcolm and Willem can't figure out what to make of Jude, no matter how much they love him, for he never speaks of his past. And it emerges he has a very good reason for not wanting to speak about it.

A Little Life is an emotional rollercoaster, between the heights of the love of the people in Jude's present, and the crashing lows, all the different kinds of self-destructiveness that comes as a souvenir from fifteen terrible years of his childhood. You come to really care about these people, feel their sorrows and their frustration when Jude just won't admit he needs or deserves help. At other times, you revel in the relief and joy that things are finally going well - but always, hanging over your head, is the threat of another relapse. And every so often, Jude reveals a hint of the trauma in his backstory, and it's harrowing stuff, but for the most part I think, tactfully handled.

However, near the end of the flashbacks, I found myself questioning how plausible that every adult in Jude's life for fifteen years was a complete monster. Of course I know there are some really evil people out there - but for one kid to encounter so many, everywhere he went, and no one else, brought me out of the novel to ponder if perhaps Yanagihara had gone a little over the top with Jude's tragic backstory. Then, with one shocking plot twist in the last hundred pages, I felt more and more fearful of the ending. The love and goodness of Jude's friends and adopted family wasn't enough to keep the book from leaving a bad aftertaste. The penultimate section of the book would have been a fine and satisfying note to end on, although as hard as I tried to resist the fact, the ending was always inevitable. But how I wished it wasn't. It's been nearly two months since I began writing this review, and over that time, the dismay and disbelief from the last hundred pages or so have been my lingering impression of the book, quite overshadowing all that impressed me through the majority of the book. A Little Life is a book that stays with you long after you put it down, which is a point in the favour of any book, surely. But it's a shame that what I remember after I finished the novel was not the same as what drew me back to its pages through the reading process.

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