A Little Life caused a big stir – shortlisted for the Booker Prize, called astonishing, a masterwork, extraordinary, and so on. You get the picture. But there have been other words to describe it too – ‘the quality of the writing is decidedly mixed…it is a humourless novel’ from The Guardian, and ‘a story of unremitting excess and gross exaggerations’ from The Independent. I agree with all of these assessments, but I have to say my own opinion is leaning more towards the excess and mixed writing than the masterwork.
It is the story of four college friends – Malcolm, the budding architect, JB, the tortured artist, Willem, the struggling actor, and the very damaged but suspiciously talented lawyer Jude. It follows their lives from the time they leave college to live in New York through to middle age. From the start, it is clear that Jude has had a very damaged but mysterious childhood that has left him with physical problems. Each of the boys go to great lengths to protect Jude, though they know nothing of his background. He is particularly close to Willem, bound by their poverty compared with the other two boys.
Over the course of 720 pages, Jude’s history is gradually and graphically revealed, while at the same time each character becomes wildly successful in their chosen field. There’s no indication of when the story is set and no reference to current events to anchor it in a particular time.
This is a very deep dive into the psyche of these men, particularly the tragic Jude and it see-saws between extreme horror, and kindness that will make you cry. Yanagihara has not restrained herself in any aspect whatsoever of this story. If you don’t like writers who don’t know when to reign themselves in, this book is not for you. I’m not giving much away to reveal that characters in this story don’t have one of their four children die, they have three. Not for these characters moderately successful lives. They don’t become successful actors, they win Oscars, become world-renowned architects, revered New York litigation lawyers and feted artists. And if you don’t appreciate books that read like Gourmet Traveller or Architectural Review, then you might find yourself skipping lots of pages. Jude’s history, when it was revealed, for me was just a bit too over-the-top gruesome to have the ring of truth it really needed. The technical specifics of the writing also leaves a bit to be desired at times – tenses that swing around all over the place with twisted metaphors (a moon that was liquid and frozen at the same time).
And yet it is utterly compelling because of how deeply it travels through half a lifetime of close friendship, setting the kindness of these friends beside all the horror. I suspect one of the reasons it earned its Booker nomination was because of its ruminations on law and mathematics and their connection to our lives, which is clever. The characterisation of all four characters is also incredibly strong – each man is distinct and after 700 pages, you almost feel you know them as real people. Although bleak and at times grotesque, it is a thoughtful exploration of the psychological outcomes of trauma and it doesn’t aim for the fairytale ending. That at least was one excess too far.