I had been skirting around ‘ A Little Life’ for some time since it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015 and was the subject of reviews and discussion. I knew it was 700 pages long and I also knew it was about sexual abuse. I heard a Guardian Books podcast on the difficulty of reading the novel with its upsetting subject matter and decided I couldn’t stomach it. Then something shifted, as happens in our relationships with books- my daughter read it and was utterly absorbed, a friend my own age found it moving and compelling- and both confirmed the book was also about love and friendship, which had attracted it to me initially. So I picked it up and read it during the first weeks of December and like all big books, lived and breathed its characters for the duration of the read.
The novel starts when the four main characters, friends from college, move to New York to start their professional lives. They come from a range and variety of backgrounds and families- Malcolm, a trainee architect is from a wealthy middle class New York family, JB the darling of a family of strong black women, Willem, whose parents have now died, is from rural Wyoming. Jude, a trainee lawyer, is enigmatic about his background- his friends know that his parents are dead but little else about his family life. He suffers from terrible pains in his legs,which he tells his friends are the result of a car accident, but they know little more about the circumstances. However, we, the readers, are aware early on through Jude’s inner narrative that his background is troubled and that it is costing him some considerable stress and anxiety to control his symptoms and fend off the concerns of his friends.
The story of the friends’ lives continues forwards through the early struggles with their careers, moving to bigger and better apartments and trying out relationships. Apart from Jude who remains happily single and contented with his close friendship with Willem, with whom he shares a flat. We learn through flashback that Jude was a brilliant student and attracted the attention of Harold, an academic lawyer, at law school. Jude was invited round to dinner parties at Harold and Julia’s and participated with ease in the intellectual dinner party conversation of their social milieu. Parallel to the story of Jude’s career success runs the account of his psychological problems. Jude self harms and the frequency and regularity of the cutting comes more and more into focus. He tries to conceal it from friends, but this becomes impossible when he has to be hospitalised as a result of the damage he does to himself. His friends, now including Harold and Julia, and Andy the doctor, are desperately worried about him. Aware that the cutting is connected to past trauma, they urge him to try to talk about the past or to seek psychiatric help, yet he is unable to do either.
The cutting itself and the descriptions of Jude’s arms were for me very disturbing to read. Yet this is only one of the physical legacies of the trauma. Jude also has terrible scarring on his back and legs and permanent neurological damage which make walking difficult, painful and tiring as time goes on. He starts to use a wheelchair more and more. The scope and long time period covered by this book mean that there are many many incidents of cutting, hospital admissions, and eventually operations, and as his physical self deteriorates the novel becomes a book about disability too.
By the time Jude is able to talk about what happened to him, we the readers already know a certain amount: that he was a foundling and spent his early childhood in a monastery where he was regularly beaten, that he spent time later in motels with ‘clients’. His memories of Brother Luke are achingly sad-not because of the violence he suffered, but because of the love he feels for Brother Luke initially, that gentle monk in the greenhouse who recognised his talents and sensitivities, who made him feel special. This is an account of grooming at its most poignant and its grimmest- and all the more heartbreaking for the way it contrasts with his numb account of the transactions that happen to him later. The missing parts of his story are filled in for us readers as he eventually tells Willem what happened and after reading this section you feel like crawling into a dark place for 36 hours to recover.
Yet as I said earlier, the novel is also about love and friendship, which is there for Jude from the start. At the end of his ordeal, he is assigned a social worker called Ana, who nurtures, understands and believes in him. She recognises he is bright and encourages him to apply to college, from where he is on an upward trajectory to undergrad and then law school. Jude is referred to the doctor Andy early on who becomes a lifelong friend as well as his doctor. He has the continuous support of his three college friends and Harold and Julia adopt him and become his parents. Though there are difficulties in his relationship with JB over the years, in every other case these people are there for him, tirelessly, enduring, always. Just as a book of this scope covers the ineradicable and everlasting physical and psychological effects of abuse, so it covers the stoically enduring nature of love and friendship.
Now Hanya Yanagihara was obviously setting out to give us a great sweeping arc of a story covering thirty years and yet a story dealing with the psychological effects of trauma. Does the novel work on both levels? In my view she excels at the personal and the detail: Jude’s story, and indeed that of the other characters, is told from a very personal point of view, switching between third person but using often free indirect speech. Sections from Harold’s point of view are written in the first person, addressing Willem. This creates an intensely personal atmosphere of interiority where psychological states, feelings, recollections, anxieties are explored. Scenes are set largely indoors – in the stylish apartment Jude eventually buys, at Harold and Julia’s, in New York restaurants-adding to the interiority or claustrophobia and echoing Jude’s increasing disability and ensuing dependence. In terms of the bigger picture, there are subtle changes to the narrative voice as the characters age but oddly there are no external events to root the narrative in any historical context as one might expect in a contemporary American novel- no 9/11 for example. To me, this gives the novel a slightly disembodied quality and I can’t quite work out what the writer was trying to achieve with this.
This is a wonderful novel about the terrible subject of child abuse. As I was reading it the awful stories of child abuse at football clubs in the UK was breaking and I was shattered to see grown men weeping in front of the cameras at press conferences. The lasting and serious effects of trauma- failed relationships, addiction, career problems- are present in many of their stories and are still only now being recognised. A novel dealing imaginatively with this issue is timely indeed, though I do feel the message of ‘A Little Life’ is mixed at best: for some there is no recovery, but love and friendship can ease the pain.