A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
At the opening of A Little Life, Malcolm, Willem, JB and Jude, all in their early twenties, have arrived in New York, and are attempting to translate the ambitions and friendships formed at college into a harsher world. Each are wrestling with their own dilemmas: privilege and pennilessness, parents too doting or too absent, but it is Jude, already on his way to becoming a ruthlessly effective lawyer, who appears truly unable to escape the events of a horrifically traumatic past.
Their lives unwind over the next three decades and more than seven hundred pages, and as their relationships deepen and complexify, Jude comes to dominate the narrative, battling his past as the other characters buoy him up.
As we learn, piece by piece, about the abuse to which he was subjected, Yanagihara deftly explores how the experiences of childhood unfold inexorably down the years, and whether individuals have the capacity to ever truly overcome them. This is no simple redemption story, and she continues to plunge Jude back into the pit from which others are trying to free him.
The characters’ unswerving devotion to each other can feel unrealistic, their success in their respective fields - Willem a movie star, Malcolm an international architect, JB exhibiting at MoMA - improbable. T
he New York they inhabit appears divorced of any historical happening: no AIDS, no 9/11, no Obama. Yanagihara has created a fairytale, but the novel’s ultimate accomplishment is in failing to provide us with a fairytale ending. In the suspension of our disbelief, she is able to utterly immerse us in her characters, and it is rare and refreshing to see male emotions given so nuanced a portrayal.
Above all, it is a novel in praise of friendship, of how it endures and how it sustains us through the big events of little lives.