I will happily admit, as a devoted and lifelong reader, that there are more than a few books that have made me cry. But Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is different: it was one of the first books where I openly sobbed after reading. By the end of it I felt profoundly changed. I’m not exaggerating when I say this novel challenged everything I thought I knew about love and friendship. It’s one of those books that stays with you forever.
Of course, A Little Life is not an easy read. So after saying it’s one of my ‘favourite’ books, I always feel the need to add a caveat to that statement, because while exquisitely written it is also relentlessly sad, with 700 pages detailing harrowing abuse and trauma. Without giving too much away, the main character Jude experiences horrific repeated sexual abuse and violence as a child, and the core of the story hangs on how this trauma affects the rest of his life and the lives of those closest to him. There’s JB the artist, Malcolm the architect, Willem the actor and Jude the lawyer, each reaching the pinnacle of outward success in their chosen career.
Jude is an incredibly strong character, and many readers, myself included, say that he stays in their mind for years after reading the book. He wears a tough exterior to hide from the abuse he has suffered, but inside he’s deeply sensitive and troubled and traumatised. Yet somehow he still picks himself back up and tries until the very end to continue his life, albeit without ever letting anyone get too close.
As the story unfolds through a variety of horrific flashbacks, we are increasingly privy to what’s happening in Jude’s brain and why he is the way he is. The more we learn about what happened to him at school, the more we understand where his insecurities stem from and his behaviour starts to make sense. I wanted to jump into the pages and take Willem, JB and Malcolm to one side and help them to help Jude to open up.
Of course, in real life, we are often in the position of the other characters in the book, never really knowing what drives a person’s self-destructive behaviour. How many of us have wanted to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved? Or felt like we alone may be able to persuade someone to keep living? Between Willem and Jude there’s a kind of love that knows no bounds; that sad but unconditional love of wanting to help someone but not necessarily being able to really get to the core of the problem. As the reader, you hope desperately that Jude and his friends will be able to heal and transcend this awful past. But as Jude scars his own body through self-harm, and the scars in his mind do equal damage to his career and relationships, you fear that he won’t - and that the trauma of the past will eventually consume them all.