A Little Life by Hanya Yanagirhara
“When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.” Bernard Meltzer
Four young men meet in college. Each is talented: one is an actor, one a painter, one an architect, and one is a lawyer. They move to New York where they hope to realize their dreams. And so starts the novel, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagirhara.
At the beginning I found it difficult to relate to the characters. They are young, selfish, and shallow. They like to party. How would I ever come to care about them? I nearly put the book down after 30 pages, told myself I’d given it enough time, but I hate giving up on a book. Failing to complete often says more about me than it does about the book. So I persisted, told myself I’d give it another five pages, then another ten. One more night. If it doesn’t pick up. That’s it.
Then something changed. The landscape began to shift. “You know he cuts himself.” Jude’s doctor says to Willem. At that point the novel takes on a different hue.
I finished the novel over a few afternoons and evenings. This is a testament to the power of the story because I could have found any excuse to put down this 800 plus page magnum opus. In fact, I tried, but each day it drew me back for hours at a time.
I wanted to understand and get to know Jude, the core character in this gang of four guys. He’s a successful lawyer. By all accounts he has everything. He’s respected by his colleagues, loves his work, and has friends who love him. And yet, he cuts himself (so graphically described I could feel the coolness of the razor against my skin). This act calms Jude somehow, gives him the control he likely never felt.
Life was scary: it was unknowable. Even Malcolm’s money wouldn’t immunize him completely. Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them. They all – Malcolm with his houses, Willem with his girlfriends, JB with his paints, he with his razors – sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of it’s minutes, its hours, its days.
Left in an alley as a baby, Jude was raised by monks and later kidnapped by one and used as a sex slave and prostitute. Even as he escapes one situation, he falls into another similar one. The brutality and impact of such violence shapes him more so than anything else he does later in his life.
The question at the heart of the novel: is it possible to outrun past childhood trauma? Can a person achieve more than he had ever hoped to achieve, find love and friendship and still believe the lies he was told about himself and the abuse he withstood as a child?
And here in the bathroom, which is cold and silent, he plays his old game of “if” with himself: if I hadn’t followed Brother Luke. If I hadn’t let myself be taken by Dr. Trayler. If I hadn’t let Caleb inside. If I had listened more to Ana. On he plays, his recriminations beating a rhythm in his head. …But then he thinks: If I had never met Willem. If I had never met Harold. If I had never met Julia, or Andy or Malcolm or JB, or Richard, or Lucien, or so many other people. All the most terrifying Ifs involve people. All the good ones do as well.
Like Jude, the novel enters your heart gradually, and then rips it out. I’ve known many Jude’s in my past life and while I got a little closer to them, they never really let me in. Did I fail them? I don't know. That’s a topic for a whole other blog.
A Little Life is an incredible read. I would highly recommend it, but it is not for the faint of heart. Be forewarned.
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