A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, book review: A hyperreal portrait of human existence

Hypnotic and harrowing, a Man Booker longlisted drama about child abuse
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The Independent Culture

At over 700 pages long and littered with graphic descriptions of the physical and sexual abuse endured by the central character, Jude, as a child –and the trauma he suffers thereafter – in theory, Hanya Yanagihara's beast of a second novel shouldn't work.

It's a story of unremitting excess and gross exaggerations. His nightmarish childhood as Jude stumbles from one sadistic abuser to the next is juxtaposed with an adulthood of great material success, surrounded by such cloying love and kindness from his friends and colleagues it practically oozes off the page.

Melodramatic is perhaps the most apt description, but not as a pejorative, since Yanagihara appropriates a genre that has traditionally encoded queer narratives to tell a story that explores brotherly love in its myriad forms, sexual and platonic. In practice, A Little Life makes for near-hypnotically compelling reading, a vivid, hyperreal portrait of human existence that demands intense emotional investment.

Beginning as what looks like an all-male alternative to the habitually female-centric bildungsroman set-ups we are familiar with from Mary McCarthy's The Group to Lena Dunham's Girls, four college friends full of hope and ambition move to Manhattan. There's Willem, a Wyoming ranch-hand's son and aspiring actor; JB, third-generation Haitian-American, who's an artist; well-off Malcolm is an architect; and the mysterious Jude (as JB puts it: "post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past") is a lawyer.

It's only around the 100-page mark that we get the first inkling that what we're reading is actually Jude's story, the full picture of which is going to take a while to piece together in its entirety.

Jude's evasiveness about the "accident" that left him crippled, and his refusal to speak about his past is mimicked by ellipses and absences in the text, confirming the talent Yanagihara showcased as an astutely patient storyteller in her stunning first novel The People in the Trees, the memoir of one Norman Perina, an anthropologist whose discovery, on a remote Micronesian island, of a rare turtle that held the secret of eternal life, met with worldwide acclaim, written while he's serving time for sexually abusing one of the many island children he adopted as his own. "I am living a strange kind of life," writes Perina, "a life in which I have no one. My children are gone and my colleagues are gone; everyone who has ever mattered to me has left me."

Jude is confronted with the opposite situation. He's a partner at one of Manhattan's most prestigious law firms, and his life is full of people who have his best interests at heart: his friends, especially Willem, as well as his former law professor, Harold. Yanagihara, however, refuses to submit to the expected narrative arc of redemption and rebirth. Despite all this support, Jude is as beyond hope as his namesake, the patron saint of lost causes, "trapped in a body he hates, with a past he hates," destined to feel "ceaselessly dirty, so soiled, as if inside he was a rotten building." Perhaps this is why, somewhat surprisingly, it's not the abuse that makes for the most harrowing reading, but the tenderness, compassion and affection.

A Little Life is an astonishing achievement: a novel of grand drama and sentiment, but it's a canvas Yanagihara has painted with delicate, subtle brushstrokes. The first appearance of the titular line almost slays you as Jude, facing his worst setback as an adult, thinks he shouldn't have dared to hope for something resembling normality, but simply "kept living his little life."

But the second more elusive reference is the real killer as, attempting to engage in a sexual relationship with the man he loves, Jude recalls the voice of his childhood pimp: "show a little life, a little enthusiasm".