Dua Lipa on A Little Life: ‘It challenged everything I thought I knew about love'
In this guest post, singer-songwriter Dua Lipa explains why Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life does exactly what great literature is supposed to do
In 2022, we spoke to a man who had made it his mission to read every book shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Here, Bob Jackson reflects on the one novel from amongst the hundreds that made a life-changing impact on him
Read our interview with Bob Jackson about reading every Booker-shortlisted book here
I have recently completed a four-year project to read the complete library of Booker Prize-shortlisted books. Amongst this cache of 321 works of fiction, are many excellent, even brilliant books and perhaps, three or four masterpieces.
Shortlisted in 2015, A Little Life tells the story of Jude St. Francis and his three close friends, Willem, Jean-Baptiste (JB) and Malcolm, all graduates of a prestigious New England university. The friendship between the four main characters forms the heart of the story, which covers a period of several decades. Willem and Jude’s relationship is the most significant in the book and the interplay between the two is elegantly scripted and astutely worked into the wider story.
I read A Little Life whilst on a solo walking holiday in Norfolk in late spring 2022. Jude, the main protagonist, immediately intrigued me. This intrigue quickly developed into a deeper, more emotional investment in Jude, whose character is an amalgam of vulnerability, introspection and self-doubt, layered on great resolve, determination and fortitude.
As a boy I experienced a period of difficulty and hardship, resulting from a family break up. It has always been difficult for me to talk of this time in my life. My affinity with Jude grew as I identified similarities between his and my early life.
Jude’s childhood, from foundling through years of mistreatment, even vile abuse, has scarred him physically and mentally and he is haunted by past events. Jude is constantly on his guard when asked about his early life. Yanagihara develops this theme with great understanding:
‘“So Jude”, Julia asked, “where did you grow up?”
“South Dakota and Montana, mostly”, he said, and he could feel the creature inside of him sit up, aware of danger but unable to escape it.’
…Walking for several full days along the glorious Norfolk coastal path provided an ideal backdrop for reflecting on the chapters I had read during the previous evenings. I didn’t simply read the book: I immersed myself in it.— Bob Jackson
As an undergraduate I formed close friendships with a handful of fellow students, friendships which have endured, mirroring the close bonds forged between Jude and his graduate friends. After graduating, five of us, all men from the same faculty, worked together for 12 weeks on a North London construction site, sharing accommodation. This period further strengthened our growing friendships. A year later, when I returned to London from post-graduate study, I reconnected with three of these friends. Like Jude and his three closest friends, we have all gone on to successful careers in different professions and remained in contact for several decades.
Shortly after finishing the book, I recognised that I had come to care for Jude and frequently thought about many sections of the book, particularly how Jude tried to deal with the anguish of his early years and how he overcame frequent episodes of intense and debilitating pain. I realise now, almost a year later, that being on my own whilst reading the book, was highly significant to the lasting affection which I have developed for it and particularly for Jude.
It wasn’t by design that I had this book with me on that short holiday: I had read the other shortlisted books from 2015 and as it was next on my reading list, it went into my bag. Being in a position to read long sections, uninterrupted and in a quiet environment, was really important to the understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of this exacting book. Additionally, walking for several full days along the glorious Norfolk coastal path provided an ideal backdrop for reflecting on the chapters I had read during the previous evenings. I didn’t simply read the book: I immersed myself in it.
…Yanagihara has created for me, in the character of Jude, such a lasting, personal experience that I am hesitant to discuss the book, or even, somewhat perversely perhaps, given its enormous impact on me, to recommend it to friends.— Bob Jackson
More than any other single character in all the Booker-shortlisted novels, Jude has penetrated my psyche and lodged there.
It isn’t unusual, having finished reading a very good book, to wish that it had continued: to miss the characters and to continue to think about them is quite commonplace. With Jude, however, this ordinary aftermath has been transcended by a connection which hasn’t diminished over time. In putting these thoughts down in writing, I am reminded that talking about A Little Life with other people is not straightforward for me.
In a recent interview about my project to read every Booker shortlisted book, I was asked to nominate my top 10 titles. As in A Little Life, many memorable characters populate all of the other nine books, created by some of our finest writers. I find that I am very happy to both discuss and recommend, without qualification, all these other nine books. Perhaps it is because Yanagihara has created for me, in the character of Jude, such a lasting, personal experience that I am hesitant to discuss the book, or even, somewhat perversely perhaps, given its enormous impact on me, to recommend it to friends.
Has A Little Life changed my own life? Well, perhaps not in any material sense, but the resonating power of the narrative and the beautiful, unexpected eloquence of Jude, have made a deep, meaningful and lasting impression on me.