One of my favourite quotes is by G.R.R. Martin who says ‘a reader lives a thousand lives.’ In Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, you’ll become friends with four college boys whose lives you’ll be a part of for over thirty years.
You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.
Their stories, you’d observe, is one of hopes and dreams, failures and successes, joy and pain, and ultimately, of love, loyalty, and friendship. At the centre of all this would be Jude St. Francis, the quiet, stoic boy who often kept himself at a distance, diverting attention from himself and never sharing anything from his past.
You’d be curious, just like everyone else, of everything Jude is not saying. Why does he have a limp? Why is he often in pain? You would ask him questions and he will dodge them each time. And slowly but surely, you will find bits and pieces of his story.
You will be horrified, disgusted, and will likely put the book down. You’ll wonder if you’re reading the words correctly and you’ll question yourself whether it’s too late to stop. But you continue, and the more you know the more you’ll hurt. You’ll come to the conclusion that this book isn’t for everyone. That it should’ve came with warnings of trauma, sexual and physical abuse, self-harm, and suicidal tendencies. Yet you keep going.
Somewhere along the way, you started caring. You found yourself able to relate to Jude in some way and he became your friend. He will enrage and devastate you, but you will stay and often wonder:
How can you help someone who won’t be helped while realizing that if you don’t try to help, then you’re not being a friend at all?
You’ll try to fix him, believe you could make him better. But he would hate it, he would tell you he’s not your project, that he’s capable of taking care of himself. What else can you do after that? Not much, except continue to be his friend. He will never voice it, he will always be afraid of being an inconvenience, but every time you look out for him he is grateful for the kindness he never believes he’s worthy of.
When I looked at him, I understood, for the first time… what people meant when they said someone was heartbreaking.
By now you’re probably wondering if this book is for you. I won’t say it is because I don’t think I can confidently recommend A Little Life to anyone. There are triggers here that I wouldn’t want anyone to read about, lest it somehow prompts them in any way. The graphic descriptions will make you wonder if it was necessary for the author to go into such detail or you might feel like it lacked some research on the clinical side of things. Or maybe you’ll find the writing confusing as it jumps from one narrative to another. There will be times when you’ll find the book too long, asking whether or not you really needed to read about so-and-so’s life for an x amount of pages. You will probably find it taxing, it’s an 800-page book with such dark themes after all, and you’d think the book would just be as impactful with less word count.
But maybe, despite its imperfections, the characters will draw you in. It feels wrong to say ‘characters’, like they’re not real, because I’m almost certain I can visit them if I chose to. Isn’t that what matters in the end? That just like real life, we meet people, get to know them, come to love them, and despite our disagreements and frustrations, we stay because we care? In the span of five days I’ve lived thirty years. I lived through uncertainties and setbacks, mourned each heartbreak, and rejoiced with every blessing. I have tabbed pages to mark quotes and passages that have resonated with me and I have dearly, achingly loved these characters.
With her distinct and vivid prose, Hanya Yanagihara has crafted one of the most heartrending novels I’ve ever read about life and friendship. It’s profound, beautiful, and tragic in its own right and it will stay with me for years to come.