A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is supposedly the story of four friends, but is instead the story of one broken man and his friends.
It is the story of Jude, a man who has unquestionably had the worst childhood imagined. Orphaned as a baby, raised by abusive monks, who beat and raped him repeatedly, he runs away as a child with one of the monks, who says he will love him as a son. But only a horribly abusive father would do to Jude the things Brother Luke does. And of course, things get worse from there on out, until Jude is about 16, and goes to college.
From that point on, it is the story of Jude’s friendship with 3 fellow students, Willem, J.B., and Malcom. Willem gets some time telling his side of the story, J.B. less so, and if Malcom had more than one chapter I’d be surprised. These four friends finish college and do astoudingly well in life. Jude is a corporate lawyer, who finds the parental love he has always craved by being adopted as an adult. Willem is an actor who starts out in school plays, and by the end of the book is a star of the screen and stage. J.B. is an artist, whose work focuses on his three beloved friends, and whose work is immediately regocnized for how amazing it is. Malcom is an architect, and is amazingly successful. The four of them jet around the world and live a fairly glamourous life, though they deeply appreciate all that they have and never take it for granted. They are somewhat happy, except for J.B.’s descent into drug addiction, and Jude’s inability to recover either physically or emotionally from his childhood.
Jude is easily the most tortured character I’ve ever come across. The abuse he suffered was complete, and for awhile there, every person he turned to for help would then abuse him as well. It’s like he was marked. He had some fairly common survivor issues, where he blamed himself for a lot of what happened to him, and felt that it somehow his own fault. Even in his fantasies, where he changes his fate and thus avoids some of the worst abuses, he is still living at the monestary, being beaten and raped as a small child. It’s horrific.
The book reminded me of nothing more than an opera. So overblown and dramatic. So intricate and detailed. There were long passages when, difficult as the subject matter was, the book really clicked and I enjoyed it. I liked the characters and wanted things to go well for them. By the end, though, it went on far too long for me, and I was relieved to be done with it. I had stopped caring about the characters, which is probably a good thing considering how things turned out. At 720 pages, I think it could have lost at least 300 pages and been a better book for it.
I don’t remember where I heard about this book. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, and was at the top of several best seller lists for awhile. I borrowed it from the library, and I’m happily returning it today.