I need to talk about 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara. I think I might need to talk about it for the rest of time to process the many, many emotions that it inspires. This is a heavy book - both in actual weight and emotional weight - and it left me sobbing by the end. What seems a simple story about male friendship becomes so much more when you begin to dig beneath the surface. It is heart-breakingly sad. I say that about so many books (my heart is easily broken) but A Little Life took a piece of my heart and will never, ever return it.
After college, Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem move to New York to pursue their dreams. They are more like brothers than friends, and their affection for each other is the light of this book and moved me to tears at more than one point. There is a scene where JB is painting portraits of his friends that will stick with me for a long time. But whilst they are close, none of them know the true pain that Jude is carrying with him; they know that he has long-term injuries because of an accident in the past and that he avoids certain topics, but they can never guess at the events that have lead him to the moment where they all met. As the reader, these events are revealed to you in time and they are more horrifying than you could imagine, and they haunt Jude (and as a result, everyone around him) for the entire novel.
I don't get to see this side of male friendship much - in life or in fiction. Obviously, as a woman, I am au fait with the nuances of friendship between women but the world of male friendship is closed off to me. I've not come across a portrayal of such strong male friendship in literature before; maybe that is because of the books that I read - my wheelhouse is very much books about women - or maybe it's just because it's not something that's touched on all that much. As I said, for me that is the shining light of this novel; the friendships between Jude and his friends - both the original foursome and others he encounters - are touching in the extreme and display true love for one another. However, it's not enough to cover the great pain of this book.
But whilst it broke me down into little shards and left me emotionally drained for days, I did enjoy it. I enjoyed the prose. I enjoyed the characters. I enjoyed the rare moments of joy and the hope that I carried through the book. And it made me wonder... is it okay to enjoy a book which is so desperately, desperately sad? Which plays off real human suffering to create the story?
Because Jude has suffered. His suffering is almost unbelievable. At times, it was uncomfortable to watch. It felt voyeuristic, to be so keen to find out what happened to him before he met Malcolm, JB and Willem. He is so private about his story, that it makes you want to find out even more (although when I did find out, I sort of wish I never had). Not only that, but the events of Jude's life are improbable, if not impossible (how can one boy be so unlucky?) and it felt at times like Yanagihara was piling on the most intense experiences onto him as a sort of game. How much can one person suffer and still live? How much can one person suffer and still be a good person (for Jude is so good that he is basically a saint, despite never having been shown a speck of real love in his formative years)?
Not only that, but the reading of a sad book like this is cathartic. I felt drained after it, but also purged. Guilty, slightly, but also glad that it was not me nor any of my loved ones who had suffered such a fate. I was shocked that the happy ending I had hoped for never materialised - although I am often shocked in this way, as an eternal optimist who is often falling in love with doomed characters. But I did enjoy it, overall. And I would recommend it one hundred times over - if anything, I would demand that you read it (although be sure to grab a box of tissues before you do).