Content warning: basically everything but especially self-harm, trauma, abuse, child abuse, suicide ideation
I had this book recommended to me as a book that will “change your life”. That’s a pretty big statement, so I added it to my list of eBooks that I loaded up onto my Kobo before I left. When I was sitting in the aeroplane seat, deciding what to read on my trip home, I remembered this book and felt that I wanted to read something profound. I decided I would make this my tenth and final book on my five weeks of American literature.
“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel about four close friends: Malcolm who is an architect, JB an artist, Willem an actor and Jude a lawyer. At the beginning of the story, set in New York after the four have graduated university, the reader spends a relatively equal amount of time with each character learning about their backstory. However, when Jude’s turn comes, it becomes apparent that his friends know almost nothing about his life before he started university. Even to Willem, who is closest to Jude and shares a one-bedroom apartment with him, Jude’s background largely remains a mystery; including how he sustained a car injury that resulted in a noticeable limp and chronic pain. As the story progresses, the narrative becomes less about the group of four and more and more about Jude’s past life and his struggle to overcome it.
This is a really difficult book to review. On one hand, Yanagihara is a beautiful writer who brings to life four complex characters by detailing the idiosyncrasies of each of their personalities. I think this book is a very powerful exploration of love, trust and relationships and Yanagihara focuses particularly on male relationships: parent/child, lover/lover and wholesome/toxic. I think she also tackled the issues of disability, chronic pain, self-harm and suicide ideation excellently and captures the helplessness that can be felt both by the individuals who are suffering and their loved ones who don’t know how best to support them.
However, as this book becomes more and more about Jude, as engrossing as it is, it does start to feel a lot like misery lit. After a while the suffering inflicted on Jude begins to feel utterly incessant as Yanagihara both gradually reveals the litany of abuses he has suffered over his lifetime and introduces new struggles as he ages. This book actually reminded me a bit of a much better written, much darker adult version of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” with Jude like a much more traumatised, adult version of Charlie. It’s a long book, and after awhile, especially when the other three characters start to fade into the background a little, it’s hard to see where exactly Yanagihara is going with it.
There were also couple of things that were a bit confusing to me. Firstly was the almost complete absence of meaningful female relationships in Jude’s life. Although there were some peripheral women, they all took secondary roles. I understand that the point of the book was to explore male relationships in all their forms. However, given Jude’s many negative experiences with men over his lifetime, I found it a little hard to suspend my disbelief that he wouldn’t form any kind of relationship with women. Another thing that wasn’t really very clear is how exactly the four friends all end up becoming extremely successful in their chosen fields. They sort of weren’t, and then they were, without any clear path between and the reader just has to take it as a given.
Finally, I felt a bit like the efforts of Willem and Jude’s doctor to get Jude to see a psychiatrist were at best inaccurate and at worst potentially deeply harmful. Jude doesn’t connect with the psychiatrist he’s referred to, and instead of finding him a psychiatrist he does connect with, his friends just keep trying to get him to go back to the same one. Having worked in mental health, I just question the impact that this might have on readers for whom the takeaway message seems to be that counselling is futile. I understand that survivors of child abuse and child sexual abuse can take decades to disclose, but that doesn’t mean that seeing someone is pointless. Yet I think there’s a tension here, similar to the one I discussed in “13 Reasons Why“, between raising awareness about mental illness by depicting it dramatically and potentially having a negative impact on readers who may themselves be struggling with their mental health.
I can see why this book was a Man Booker Prize finalist. It’s well-written, gripping and, particularly with respect to disability and chronic pain, groundbreaking. However, I did feel a bit like Yanagihara subjected Jude to basically every single negative experience a person could conceivably live through and ultimately it just felt relentless.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call or chat online to someone at Lifeline on 13 11 14 or at www.lifeline.org.au.
If you want to learn what to say to someone who is struggling with their mental health, how to pick up the signs and where to refer them, I highly, highly recommend ASIST suicide intervention training and mental health first aid training.