Years ago, when I was working full-time in an office, I did one those personality profile exercises – the Myers-Briggs of the day. It sticks in my mind because the results of this particular profiling included ‘allowable weaknesses’ which acknowledged that the flip-side of certain personality strengths were particular weaknesses. For example, if you’re a highly organised person who likes to plan ahead you’re less likely to be flexible or good at ‘living in the moment’ (and that’s okay).
How does this relate to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life? Well, I’m granting this brilliant, immense and harrowing novel some ‘allowable weaknesses’.
It’s the story of four men and their lives over the decades after leaving college.
“…he understood that friendship was a series of exchanges: of affections, of time, sometimes of money, always of information.”
Although the story is told from various point-of-view, it focuses predominantly on Jude – he’s an orphan, a lawyer, a mathematician, a victim, a baker, a friend, a ‘cutter’, a person with a physical disability. He’s complex, as are the other characters – it’s astonishing how intricately Yanagihara has depicted these people. And it’s because of this that I’m allowing some weaknesses – how likely is it that four men who met at college would remain such close, devoted friends? And how likely is it that these four friends would all achieve such success in their careers? Probably unlikely but allow it, for it gives Yanagihara the opportunity to create an almost fairytale-like narrative, with themes of good versus evil, and loyalty versus betrayal woven throughout.
Secondly, I wasn’t left breathless by the writing. I wasn’t re-reading passages or savouring sentences. But there is a pureness, a truthfulness to Yanagihara’s words that I really admire.
“I have never been one of those people…who feels that the love one has for a child is somehow a superior love, one more meaningful, more significant, and grander than any other… But it is a singular love, because it is a love whose foundation is not physical attraction, or pleasure, or intellect, but fear. You have never known fear until you have a child and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent…”
And she does have some very eloquent imagery –
“…your dreams for a career … would recede … a melting history as quiet as a briquette of ice sliding into a warm bath.”
“At five thirty, the light was perfect: buttery and dense and fat somehow, swelling the room … into something expansive and hopeful.”
“His persistent nostalgia depressed him, aged him, and yet he couldn’t stop feeling that the most glorious years, the years when everything seemed drawn in fluorescents, were gone.”
When it comes, the betrayal – for there is always a betrayal in a story about close friends – is so simply executed, it’s perfect. It’s brutal and deeply hurtful and I couldn’t help but be impressed by how easily Yanagihara twists the story.
“…he reminds himself, loneliness is not hunger, or deprivation, or illness: it is not fatal. Its eradication is not owed to him.”
This is a relatively short review given the length of the book (720 pages). Who should read it? I’m not sure – I finished feeling wrung out and very sad. Readers should be aware that there are many references to sexual and physical abuse throughout the book, as well as references to suicide and self-mutilation. So yeah, it’s not for everyone.
5/5 At one point during this book, I cried for an hour. AN HOUR.
“…he knew they would be devoured mindlessly, swallowed whole with beer, and that they would begin the New Year finding crumbs of those beautiful cookies everywhere, trampled and stamped into the tiles.”