By Hanya Yanagihara
The book is an absolute goliath. Goliath as in,
1: It’s a massive book. It took me more than two days to finish reading, and this was given that, well, it’s me, and I was reading non-stop.
2: It’s a monster. This isn’t a light read. This is an intense, once you start, you might need to take breaks and have mugs of hot chocolate to feel a bit warm again sort of reading. I’ve put it down as a Must Read. But I do not know if this applies to you. Hell, I’m not even sure if that applies to me.
I really don’t know how to review this book or where to start. I found it because I was chatting to some people at the airport, and some man recommended this, and I just looked it up and started (abandoning said man for his book). As the tags would’ve informed, it’s a giant mess of triggers and heartache. It’s phenomenal. It’s disgusting. I’ll start with a note, specific to us and the warnings at the start, this is not a book that features someone who gets better. Mental health does not always get better. How we treat ourselves, no matter how much medication or therapy or outside love we get, does not always change us. This book exemplifies that. It’s hard for me to review, because as much as I want to recognise the importance of this book, the fact that it exists and that so many people are reading it, I am also aware of how unhelpful it can be for people in their own self-growth and journeys.
A Little Life is about four friends in New York City after they finish college: Jude, a lawyer with a dark past and “ambiguous ethnicity” (pet peeve, did not understand the need for this phrase); Malcolm, an architect from a rich, biracial family; JB, a somewhat spoiled black painter; and Willem, a white aspiring actor. Willem and Jude are particularly close, because both are poor and share a flat, but also because both are orphans. Despite their long friendship, nobody knows much about Jude’s past. The book is divided into second parts, and follows chronologically with several flashbacks. Over the first third or half of the novel, it uses the third person to show one of the men’s thoughts. But over the course of the book, it focuses on Jude; his own thought processes and how others interact with him.
Jude is troubled. His past is dark and his present is tainted by that to the core. If you’ve ever asked yourself, “Will my being raped at 16 have an effect on the absolute rest of my life?” then this book says, “Yes.” Trauma does not leave; it affects your mental, emotional, and physical health, and changes the way you navigate the world. Jude, of course, is a lot more troubled than just that (if it really was just that one incident than, damn, we screwed). It’s very welcoming to have this perspective in fiction, that you neither need nor are expected to be better; that when you are hurt so dearly, it is not unusual to fall into cycles of such abuse over the course of your life and it’s not your fault (because, even if Jude doesn’t believe it, the book is very careful to have all the other characters surrounding him absolute in their belief and love in him). It’s just maybe not very inspiring – to me – to read it.
However, the book doesn’t just tackle these heavy intangible issues. Jude suffers from chronic pain and a physical disability. I’ve never seen any book explain with such detail the every-day effects of having such a condition – the way Jude’s own desire to be independent are thwarted by his body as it grows weaker, and how his life is almost entirely structured around pain management; how, thus, his friends’ lives are too. We’ve had conversations about ableism, but this book really opened my eyes to the limits of my understanding, and the need for more to be done.
But, like I said, all the supporting characters are very literally there to support Jude. Their unwavering love, commitment, kindness, well – it reminds of you, honestly. And my other friends and family. But it also astounds me. Can anyone really have so much kindness around them and not believe it? Not think it’s real? I’m so grateful never to wonder this, and was filled with so much pain that he did. Mind you, I also read this in 2 airports and a plane ride, and I could not stop weeping.
You know, this book’s been lauded as “the long-awaited gay novel”, and I can understand why. It is such an important book, I’m so glad it exists. But I don’t think it should be our gay novel. LGBT media, both novels and movies, have had a long-standing trope of trauma. Their loves never last because the characters don’t, and I would like the ultimate gay novel to break that trope – be more The Notebook than The Titanic. We deserve that much. So, like I said, and I haven’t said enough but I don’t want to say more either – this book is hugely important and heart-breaking. I’d just make sure I was in a good place before picking it up.
(Or, in case this clarifies where this book is emotionally for me, I would speak to you and my boo about it. I would hesitate with anyone else.)