As A Little Life (short listed for the 2015 Booker Prize)begins, you may think you are reading something familiar – a generational story, an epic about love and friendship but the book’s apparent normalcy leads you into something much darker and more disturbing.
It is a story about four classmates from an exclusive Massachusetts college who move to New York City seeking fame and success. Broke and adrift, they are kept afloat by their friendship. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; Haitian born JB, a self- centred and sharp tongued artist; Malcolm,a rich, privileged architect and Jude, a brilliant, enigmatic litigator. Over the decades, their friendship deepens and darkens, affected by success, addiction and pride.
Jude is their centre and his mental and physical well- being binds them all. Yet he is an increasingly broken man, his mind and body irreparably scarred by a traumatic childhood. Yanagihara slowly reveals Jude’s unspeakable past and these passages are at times harrowing and very hard to read. Jude is a fascinating character, carefully and subtly drawn and the author goes into great detail about his self-hatred, his self –destructiveness, his strange defence mechanisms and his constant struggle to overcome his past. Sometimes these details become oppressive and we are ready to move on. On the other hand, all the minutiae of his life do build up an all encompassing picture and take an emotional hold on the reader. The book is long, 700 pages, and at times needs editing. A few of the characters seem representative rather than fully fleshed out people; however Jude himself is an extraordinarily compelling character.
A Little Life is a disturbing and powerful read, full of pain and sadness but it is far from all being dark. This is also a story of compassion, grace and the endurance of friendship and although flawed, it is profoundly moving.