Published by Doubleday on March 10th,2015(Hardcover,720 pages)
As Hanya Yanagihara’s new novel(her second) hits the stands today,I am sure ‘A Little Life’ will indubitably be one of the most talked about books this year.I am still reeling from reading and obsessing over it for almost a week,because A Little Life is as overwhelming in its depiction of friendship,love and companionship as it is stifling with its unflinching depiction of human cruelty,of the brutality and the hardships faced by humans.
Beginning with the renting of a small and squalid apartment in Lispenard street in New York by Willem Ragnarsson and Jude St.Francis,two members of a tight quartet of friends which also includes Jean Baptiste Marion aka J.B. and Malcolm Irvine,who had all met in an unnamed college in Massachussetts (probably Harvard)as teenagers,the novel spans decades portraying the group’s evolvement from struggling but ambitious twenty-somethings to well-established professionals in their forties. Throughout it all,the novel is centred around Jude’s life,the most mysterious of the lot and that of the others’ revolve around him.
In a world where everyone strives to be recognized and to stand out from the crowd,Jude,despite being a prodigious student of law and mathematics in college,along with being a skilled pianist,singer and cook, has always worked on being invisible to others.And this does not change even as he goes on to become a very successful and formidable corporate litigator.Despite his ferocity in court,he remains insecure,sad and unsure in life about his personal equation with others. Because of his unwillingness to talk about anything related to his life before college,and his mysterious limp and ailing constitution,he is an enigma even to his three best friends; ’Post-sexual,post-racial,post-identity,post-part.The post-man,Jude the Postman’ according to J.B.
Throughout the course of the novel as Willem becomes a much sought-after actor from a struggling theatre artist waiting tables for money,J.B.,an artist known for his paintings with his friends as muses,and Malcolm,who graduates from creating intricate paper structures to a successful architect with projects all over the world, they,along with a lot of people like Jude’s old law professor,Harold Stein and his wife Julia,his doctor Andy,as well as many other friends they become acquainted with, have to continuously prove to Jude that they love him and he is very loveable.At times I would grow impatient with Jude for stubbornly making the people who loved and cared for him suffer by keeping them at arm’s length,especially Willem,who loved him beyond words and Harold who treated him like his son and had eventually adopted him at thirty.But then I would slowly gather the crumbs of his first fifteen years of life,which is so grim and its atrocities so unfathomable to me, that I learnt to accept and love him as he is as did the people close to him.
But despite the grimness of Jude’s trauma from being repeatedly abused and manipulated by the people he’d met in his childhood and adolescence,making him incapable of loving himself or accepting love from his friends had left me feeling raw,I cannot but marvel at the take on friendship and love in its purest form here.I am awed and somewhat jealous of Jude,as J.B. was,because in spite of his resistance to share himself with others,almost everyone who made his acquaintance in his adult life becomes devoted to him and toils to assuage his fears,and waits for his acceptance with a herculean amount of patience.Here is ‘friendship’ formed,defined and redefined among the foursome , transcending petty jealousies and accusations of being Peter Pans(by Malcolm’s father) for their heavy dependence on their bond,and their reluctance to pursue permanent romantic relationships. When his girlfriends accused him of being codependent on his friends ,especially on Jude, to the extent of including him in his retirement plans,Willem ponders upon how underrated friendship is compared to other romantic relationships.
Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship?Why wasn’t it even better?It was two people who remained together ,day after day,bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property,but only by a shared agreement to keep going,the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries,and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs.It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s dismal moments,and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
Though this is the first book I’ve read by Hanya Yanagihara,I can confidently predict that she is here to stay.Like an expert juggler she effortlessly juggles between the past,the present and the future of the storyline and lucidly narrates the tale from a third person perspective as well as the first.The story aside, what makes this novel easily the best one I’ve read this year, is Yanagihara’s vast knowledge on diverse topics.Art and architecture,movies and haute cuisine,law and pure mathematics,all share the same canvas which come to life under Yanagihara’s masterful strokes.I am thankful to her for so beautifully explaining the beauty of pure mathematics, more accurately mathematical logic,to the layman;I have always found it difficult to explain its relevance in an exciting manner to non-mathematicians who ask me about my field of study.
I suppose her job at the Conde Nast Traveler has contributed to her deep knowledge of and her aesthetic presentation of places ,the novel’s characters visit ,all over the globe. But more than that I believe it is Yanagihara herself who is very perceptive and a keen observer of the many facets of human nature.She explores the existential dilemma of a child born to interracial parents with Malcolm who is always confused about his Blackness, and is also ashamed of being from an affluent household whenever he is confronted with Jude and Willem’s paltry backgrounds, Jude’s unknown parentage and Willem’s remote and uncaring parents.He is envious of their freedom from parental interruption while feeling guilty for being born privileged.Then there is J.B.,the most outgoing and confident person in the group,who becomes embittered and disillusioned when the others attain success before him.And last but not the least,we have Willem’s dilemma on whether to confront Jude about his self-destructive habits or to remain silent honouring his wishes. Along with presenting Jude’s story,his struggle in letting go of his past to embrace his present ,in an empathetic manner,the author explores sexual diversity and the questions and confusion surrounding the topic.
I have neither the scholarly knowledge of literature nor the flair for writing to expertly critique Yanagihara’s work,but as an avid reader and a lover of literature,it is my humble opinion that Yanagihara’s emotive new novel will make its readers sit back and reflect upon it long after they’ve finished reading.A Little Life is a literary phenomenon worth witnessing.
Synopsis: Brace yourself for the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season. An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light.
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
In rich and resplendent prose, Yanagihara has fashioned a tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.(via Goodreads)
An ARC was generously provided by Random House and Knopf Doubleday in exchange for an honest review.Disclaimer: All opinions here are drawn from my own conclusions no part of which bears any external influence.