A Little Life by Hanya Yanahigara
This novel has really divided its readers into camps. Most, but not all, of those reading along with Scott didn’t like it, and neither did James and Teresa. But, on the other side, Simon S, Jackie and Rebecca all loved it.
Where do I stand? Well – I’m a little on the fence. It’s not that I lack the courage of my convictions to come out and say that I loved or hated this book. It’s just that for everything I loved about this book, there was nearly always something that irked me too. Irked rather than hated though, so I guess I’m just inside the fence. In truth I found it unputdownable (for as long as I could hold the book up). Once started I was hooked and there was no way I wouldn’t read it through to the end.
It was very interesting to (actually manage for once) to readalong with a group of others, commenting back on Scott‘s blog after each section. Part three in particular generated a wonderful discussion based around one bad sentence highlighted initially by Janet.
I’m going to assume you’re slightly familiar with the basics of A Little Life by now and just outline a few of my thoughts (there may be slight spoilers!)
- For me, 746 pages was about two to three hundred too many. I didn’t need all the repetitive detail, although it does emphasise some of the awfulness of Jude’s life of suffering. I read that she disregarded some of the cuts her editor suggested, which was probably a shame.
- It will make a marvelous mini-series, should someone like HBO be brave enough to make one. There are real ‘duff-duff’ moments (Eastenders signature style cliff-hangers), which leads me to say that I think it may be the latest ‘Great American Soap Opera’ rather than the latest ‘Great American Novel’. Soaps aren’t all bad though…
- The author obviously worked hard to be inclusive in her four male leads – sexuality, ethnicity, economic status etc – at the beginning all are there which makes it interesting but also makes it feel like all boxes have been ticked.
- I loved the beginning. Meeting the four guys, letting Jude take a back step so that we could get to know Willem, JB and Malcolm. Malcolm remained so undeveloped though that he was ultimately expendable. I wanted more Malcolm. I was very fond of Willem, and found JB interesting rather than likeable – his obsession of only painting his three best friends in his art over the years was a little creepy I thought.
- I had been determined that Jude’s pain wouldn’t get to me. I’ve recently read James Rhodes’ memoir, Instrumental and thought that a fictional account of child abuse couldn’t get to me having read about a real one and the ongoing effects in his life. Although horrific, it didn’t – however, it was when Jude was let down by someone he’d mistakenly begun to trust in part IV that the floodgates opened, and I wept realising that Yanagihara was never going to let Jude stop being a victim, he’d only get sicker as she put it in an interview for Vulture.
“I wanted A Little Life to do the reverse: to begin healthy (or appear so), and end sick — both the main character, Jude, and the plot itself.”
- Although Yanagihara has said it’s not impossible that Jude could suffer so much and be so successful at work, it is improbable – but, as Sherlock Holmes says in The Sign of Four: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”
- The book never deviated from telling us about the lives of the four men over its forty years or so. If it didn’t involve one of the quartet, it wasn’t in the novel.
- There were no cultural touchstones at all – it was timeless. This was one of the novel’s great successes, and also one of its bigger flaws. It meant the author didn’t have to bother with anything that would date it, but also that external events that the guys must surely have come into contact with like HIV, 9/11 and everything relating to politics could be left out. Given how detailed she was about the minutiae of things, I missed a bit of scene-setting in this regard.
- There were other things I missed. I’d have loved more about the lives of Harold and Andy, the two other men who loved Jude as surrogates, father and big brother respectively. By the time Yanagihara introduces Andy’s surname, it seems too late; the author keeps introducing little snippets of information like this that you would have expected earlier in the text.
- Malcolm gets the least page-space of the quartet (see above). He’s the straight married one. Conveniently he and Sophie decide not to have children; it’s never mentioned again. There will be no next generation for any of them – a godchild for Jude would have cast a spanner in the works, giving him a cause to live for.
- Even when Jude does allow himself to be happy, he’s still totally insecure, even in bed next to Willem:
‘All I want,’ he’d said to Jude one night, trying to explain the satisfaction that at that moment was burbling inside him, like water in a bright blue kettle, ‘is work I enjoy, and a place to live, and someone who loves me. See? Simple.’
Jude had laughed, sadly. ‘Willem,’ he said, ‘that’s all I want, too.’
‘But you have that,’ he’d said quietly, and Jude was quiet too.
‘Yes,’ he said, at last. ‘You’re right.’ But he hadn’t sounded convinced. (p521)
- As a portrait of friendship, and the trials and tribulations of maintaining friendships over the years, this novel did touch me deeply. However, it was also very claustrophobic – it was lot of life crammed, even shoehorned, primarily into Jude’s experience. Even when there was momentary relief from the misery, you knew that something else would be around the corner.
- I’m so glad the UK cover illustrates the apartment that Willem and Jude rent together in the first part – one of the more positive sections of the book. I would have had to take the d/j off if I had the US cover with its anguished face on the cover.
So, there you have it, a book I enjoyed but didn’t love, a compulsive but flawed read that didn’t quite make the hype worth it. Will it win the Man Booker? It must be favourite, but I have a feeling this could be Anne Tyler’s year (since Marilynne Robinson was not shortlisted)… Who can tell.
Which camp did you fall into, or did you like me stay nearer the fence with A Little Life? (7/10)
* * * * *
Source: Own copy.
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara. Pub Picador 2015. Hardback, 746 pages.