Having just set down this book ten minutes ago and spent that time in silence pondering what I had just read, it’s supremely hard to now put those thoughts into words. I know I definitely liked A Little Life, I barely have put it down since I started it a little under a week ago. Recommending someone I know read it, though, is another thing. I feel as if I would be subjecting someone to a traumatic experience by recommending this book. That is the warning I would give, anyway.
The plot is simple. Yanagihara writes about four recent college graduates finding their way in New York City. The story starts easily, it is a recognisable and familiar thing to be reading about the post-college struggle. New York City is a familiar backdrop. The woes of these four men are fairly familiar also. The story progresses, and as it does the reader starts to get particular glimpses into the life of one of them, Jude St Francis. And that is when we realise that this book may not be as simple as first thought.
The more we learn about Jude’s backstory and his life, the more complex the book becomes. Where at first the struggles of post-college employment were at the forefront of these four’s minds, Jude’s health and anxieties and wellbeing become their problems – particularly Willem who Jude is closest to. The prose becomes more brutal and harder to read emulating the intensity and feral nature of her plot. Jude has been sexually, physically, mentally, and emotionally abused and tortured over the course of his childhood and teenage years and he is in a constant, daily struggle to deal with and overcome the impact this has had on him.
Jude’s mental health deteriorates alongside his physical health. Tragedies occur, happiness occur, and yet he is never able to quite be who everyone wants him to be. The beautiful and tragic nature of this would hardly be comprehensible without the powerful impact of Yanagihara’s writing. The subject matter sometimes was so raw and visceral that I had to put down the book for a few minutes, a testament both to subject but also the way Yanagihara pulls no punches with her writing.
It sounds so trite and cliche to call this book devastating and beautiful and difficult but worth it. The emotional rollercoaster I experienced while reading this was hard to describe in words that would make sense without having experienced this also. The plot is simple and weaves varying perspectives through anachronistic events with a grace that leaves the reader bewildered by a time or perspective hop only for a few lines before everything slots into place.
One of the more obvious themes that has been tugging at my brain throughout the book is the simple question of what it is to be alive, what it is to want to die, and whether or not that should be shameful. Do people owe it to themselves or others to live? And in the case of Jude, would it not sometimes be better for that person to just wink out of existence? There are no clear answers to these questions. As cerebral and ephemeral as these questions are so are the subjective and emotional responses humans would have to them. Yanagihara makes the reader question themselves and uses her characters to force a confrontation with perhaps an unwelcome answer. In the end of the book, there is only a sense of relief and catharsis as the story comes to an end. I didn’t particularly enjoy the entire novel in the traditional sense, but having finished it is as if a weight has been lifted from my shoulders.