A Little Life by Hanya Yanighara
Published by Anchor ISBN 9780804172707
Trade paperback, $17, 832 pages
A friend of mine, whose taste in books I truly respect, told me I must read Hanya Yanagihara's novel A Little Life. She said it was difficult subject matter, but one of the best books she has read in years.
I had the book on my pile forever and it got such great reviews, but I kept putting off reading it. Was I afraid I wouldn't like as much as everyone else? Was it because it is 800 pages long? Last week, I decided to tackle it.
A Little Life tells the story of four college friends- Malcolm, who comes from a well-to-do family and becomes an architect, JB, an artist raised by his immigrant mother and aunt, Willem, an orphan from the midwest who had a brother who died at a young age, and Jude, a lawyer who was in an a terrible car accident as a youth and was left with lifelong injuries and crippling pain, and who has no family.
The story follows the men as they go through life, with their successes and failures, their loves and losses. But mostly it is about Jude. Slowly we discover that Jude was abandoned as a baby and raised in a religious community of brothers. He was treated cruelly by some of the brothers, but found what he hoped to be a savior in Brother Luke.
Jude's life as a young boy and young man was one devastation and degradation after another. He told no one what exactly had happened to him, although he came close to telling his social worker, a kind woman named Anna.
He formed a close bond with his college roommates, but never told anyone his life story. He studied hard, never dated anyone and became a very successful lawyer. The story weaves back and forth in time, which might be confusing to readers in the hands of a lesser writer, but Yanagihara handles it beautifully.
The thing that strikes me most about this stunning novel is the struggle between good and true evil in the world. Jude saw the worst of humanity and it scarred him both physically and emotionally for life. But he also saw the goodness of people. Willem, JB and Malcolm were lifelong friends and for the most part, were there for him when he needed them most.
Anna the social worker, his professor Harold and Harold's wife, and Andy, a doctor who took incredible care of Jude's many physical ailments but couldn't get through to him emotionally, all loved and cared for Jude, even if they didn't completely understand him.
A good novel creates empathy in the reader for its characters and A Little Life does that very well. Jude is an unforgettable character, one that the reader roots for and hopes that he can overcome the horrors of his young life. If you can't feel for Jude, you are simply not human. And if you ever doubted the resiliency of the human spirit, Jude will allay those doubts.
I don't generally like to read books where characters suffer abuse, and A Little Life truly gutted me. I sobbed through some of it and audibly gasped a few times. Even now, a week after reading it, my eyes fill with tears for Jude and all he suffered.
A Little Life is a towering achievement, and it rightly deserved all the praise it earned last year (it made many best-of lists). I give it my highest recommendation. It is one of the best books I have read in many years, my friend was right.