A Little Life
“I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high.”
Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel (her second), “A Little Life” is currently bookies favourite to win the 2015 Booker Prize. Given the bookies record of being way off mark most of the last decade with their picks this favouritism should probably be taken with a huge pitch of salt. There are many things to be said about this novel, but one thing is for sure: it is hard to argue with Yanagihara’s quote above – emotionally everything is ramped up to 11 in this novel. An alternate title for the book could well have been Love and Pity.
The book starts off as a tale of four men – Willem, Malcolm, Jean-Baptiste and Jude – who become friends at a small Massachusetts college, and who aspire to great things. Willem, an aspiring actor, hails from a poor farming family, and is the only surviving child of four; Malcolm, an aspiring architect, from a wealthy new York family; Jean Baptiste (JB), an aspiring artist; and Jude, an aspiring lawyer whose background seems more than a little murky. We start of leaning a little bit about each of the four, and wonder what direction the book will go in.
This four-way focus is – sadly in my view – jettisoned also immediately in favour of becoming sort of the Gospel of St Jude (Patron Saint of Hope and impossible causes). This occurs with what becomes a leitmotif in the novel – Jude cutting himself (in a self harm way).As the book progresses the reasons for this coping mechanism become clearer and Jude’s past has left him severely damaged – both physically and mentally. He is a man in almost constant pain – “his body owns him, not the other way around.” As we delve further into Jude’s past we see a picture of continuous horrors. This misery could become quite relentless very quickly were it not balanced with an exploration of love and friendship – primarily with Willem.
In many ways this is a book about love, friendship and the life-long relationships, as well as our scars – both emotional and physical – that blight and shape our lives. Self perception and self worth and how we see ourselves and others is also a strong theme – not just how we talk and interact with one another but also, as demonstrated in the relationships JB has with the three others, through art. It also explores the interesting question of how much do you really need to know about another person to be in love with them and happy with them. Is it really important to know every detail of someones life before you?
All this is genuinely fascinating but its overall effect is partly neutered by some decisions Yanagihara takes. Firstly, everyone, and I mean Everyone, is or becomes successful in this book: JB, Willem, Malcolm, Andy, Harold. No one fails and just end up working in the local public library or convenience store, they’re all VERY successful.
There is also an unflinching niceness to all the people she has surrounded Jude with. Bar a few minor excursions into nastiness all the people who love Jude, do so at almost saint-like levels. With the best intentions in the world, this doesn’t ring true. In real life Jude would have succeeded in alienating and pushing away most, if not all of these people. You need an impressive sense of masochism to remain friends with someone like Jude for the length of time the characters in this book do. His past may mean he deserves undying love and affection, and as a reader it is hard not to think so too, but in reality that isn’t how the world works. And that feeling kept creeping back into my thoughts through-out the novel. It almost as if Yanagihara has decided we need this level of saintliness from everyone else to balance Jude’s pain and misery. Despite this, the book still never feels like it is selling out Jude himself though, which is admirable. “What was happiness but an extravagance, and impossible state to maintain partly because it was so difficult to articulate? He couldn’t remember being a child and being able to define happiness: there was only misery, or fear, and the absence of misery and fear, and the latter state was all he had needed or wanted”
Some US reviewers have described the book as a masterpiece: It’s not, far from it, but there is something compelling about it all the same, and I’ll admit I spent much of the books final 100 pages in tears (not something I do very often). That the book had the ability to do this, almost despite itself and my reservations, is worth praising. It’s a long book – pushing 800 pages, but I had no problem getting through it, I wanted to know whether the inevitable was indeed inevitable.
Yanagihara is certainly a talent to watch, and I will look forward to whatever she writes next. Do I think this is the Booker winner? No, although I wont be surprised if it makes the short-list.
Review copy provided by Pan Macmillan/Netgalley