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.
Of these, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life has become my favourite.
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.’