I finished A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara yesterday and I'm not sure I can talk about it yet. It is profoundly beautiful and moving. It is also deeply disturbing. It is a book that I hesitate to recommend. In fact, I ended up deleting something I wrote about it on Facebook because I'm just not sure I think everyone should read it.
In some ways I think it's one of the best books I've read this year. In fact, I can't remember the last time a book got under my skin so thoroughly. The writing is lush and visual, the detail makes things seem so personal. This is good, it is the mark of excellent writing. But there are times that I wished for things to be less vivid. But maybe that is the point. This book isn't meant to make the reader feel comfortable.
The main question of the book seems to be: does life go on? How can a person go from years of shame and pain and then make a real, meaningful life. Is it possible to have real relationships and experience real love if your formative years are bereft of anything resembling real love? These questions are not really answered, maybe because there is no answer. Or, at least, no easy answers.
A Little Life's main character, Jude, is broken, maybe irreparably so, the result of a childhood spent being abused in the most horrible and damaging ways. He manages to escape his numerous abusers and enroll in college where he meets 3 boys who will become his lifelong friends. These friends, especially Willem, show him unconditional love. Then, in law school, Jude meets a professor, Harold, who, along with his wife, begins to take interest in him. After some years go by, Harold and his wife ask Jude (now, of course, in his late 20s) if they can adopt him. The section of the book surrounding Jude's adoption is, by far, my favorite. In that section I have hope that Jude can being to experience love, because only Love can truly save him.
Alas, Jude does not let people in, even the people who love him the most. He remains bound by destructive coping mechanisms that are physically and mentally damaging. Jude is trapped by the belief, beaten in to him by the most cruel of his abusers, that he is worthless, that he is to blame for all the terrible things that happened to him, that he is nothing. I loved everything about Jude and I wanted him to find healing. I wanted there to be some redemption and for a while it seemed like the patient love of his friend Willem might help free Jude from some of his demons. In the end, though, the wounds of childhood were too great and inescapable.
A Little Life is horrible and wonderful. It is excruciating to read, especially the incredibly graphic descriptions of abuse that are sprinkled throughout. I genuinely don't know if you should read it. But I'm glad I did.