“Why wasn’t a friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it better? …bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never to codified. ” – Williem
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, to put it simply, beat me up. It’s a book that reads brilliantly, (albeit with emotional difficulty), written masterfully with a style both unforgiving of its heavy context and with unabashed perfection in the art of writing from a gender specific perspective opposite that of the author herself.There hasn’t been a book in years that’s warranted the physical and mental responses that the words of this one pried from me. Several times I needed to quite literally close its pages at the swell of nausea it could churn in my stomach or shut my eyes against the imagined images that would play scene for scene in my mind, hoping that pressing my palms to my eyes would lessen the blow and smother the residual effects of Yanagihara’s words. It was brutal.
Yet I kept reading.
A Little Life follows the friendships between four boys as they grow to men, with attention to detail spotlighted upon two of them – one an upcoming actor with charm and charisma, Williem, who’s guilt over how to be not just be a friend but a good one is a feeling that we can all understand. And that of his physically and mentally crippled friend, Jude, who’s past is so shrouded in mystery that you find yourself drawn intimately to his struggles and preciously secretive revelations. The narration slips seamlessly between characters, sometimes with years and other times minutes between one another so as you read you are always aware of the progression of time and aging itself. You’re first introduced to these college kids is as they bum cigarettes from one another and exchange stories of their childhoods while lying on dorm room floors, paying one another in tales for friendship, for closeness. There’s a balance of give and take, of stories fawned over, nostalgia levels running high between three of them, while Jude’s presence is that of an observer – his stories too painful, too shameful, to evil in his own mind to share. There’s so much conflict and embarressment in everything he does – his past, a childhood plagued with every nightmarish scenario imaginable, having warped his beautiful mind and skewing his interpretation of behaviour, both his own and that of others. A history of surviving by hiding, by building walls and shielding oneself despite the desperate want for affection make Jude a character painstakingly other and unique. You can’t help but to love him.
It’s clear from the onset that this novel is strongly themed by the always relevant struggle between good and evil, but I found that the sweetest notion behind everything in this read, despite the harshness of its context, was the nonnegotiable text of friendship. It’s a theme that seems so overtly simple that one could debate that they found no depth in Yanagihara’s masterpiece, that it was styled too ‘Hollywood’ in its continuous dump of drama, but friendship in itself is complex. And that’s a statement that will never be as true as it is in A Little Life. Friendship, growth, loss and the delicate intricacies of love are the strongest currents in an otherwise emotionally wrecked read.
If I needed a criticism for this book, it would be in the final 100 pages. Despite a prose that is unquestionably amazing, I felt that Yanagihara lacked in her ending. She seemed to falter with closing the story and I found that the extraction of a particularly redeeming character to not only anger me but to also take away from the novel in a big way. I lost interest in the words and story because amidst such horrifying experiences, this one character had given me something more and I felt that by excluding them from the finality of the book made it seem weak and stuttered.
That said, I would still recommend A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara but wish to heed warning in its heavy material. This isn’t a book for everyone. The writing is some of the best I’ve read in awhile, but if it hadn’t been for that redeeming quality, I’m not entirely sure I would have been able to finish it.