I have literally just set this book down and my heart feels sore. A Little Life is, without a doubt, the best book that I have read this year, one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction that I have ever read, and I was saddened, and a little relieved I must admit, to have finished it.
Spanning over three decades (and 700 pages) A Little Life follows four friends, former college roommates, as they move through their lives in New York City, attempting to navigate their relationships, careers and the trials and tribulations of human existence. There is a particular focus on Jude St Francis, the youngest and most impenetrable of the group, who refuses to discuss his childhood or how he managed to sustain an injury that frequently causes him pain and discomfort. This is a book about love, about friendship and about the absolute necessity of both.
This is a beautifully written piece of fiction. It is raw, painful and so very, very sad. I spent almost a month with this book because there were moments when it felt too difficult to continue, moments when I could no longer see the words through my own tears and, mostly, because I did not want it to be over. It felt like I was witnessing the most unbearably intimate moments in the lives of these four men and I found myself falling in love with each of them for very different reasons.
It is a testament to Yanagihara’s skill as an author that she has managed to craft, out of nothing more than words, four very real and very complex people, because this is what they feel like. I find it difficult to imagine that there isn’t a New York City out there that hasn’t really been their home, that hasn’t witnessed their lives unfolding like I have and even when I wasn’t reading about these characters, about JB, Jude, Malcolm and Willem, I would find myself thinking about them and worrying about them. I am sad that I now have to leave them behind. They are all complex, they are all flawed and it is difficult not to find yourself forming connections with them, even when their actions are less than admirable you will always be able to understand them. Jude in particular has wormed his way into my heart and I found myself frequently returning to his story with sadness, unable to shake my own desire to help him in some way. Reading his story, particularly his own thoughts about himself, is not easy going and I felt like the fifth member of the group, watching Jude, knowing more than they ever could, and yet, like them, completely unable to do anything to help him.
Yet, despite my love for this book and these characters, it would be a lie to say that I enjoyed the reading experience. It was emotionally taxing and difficult to get through at times, it was tiring and draining, and it is not a book that I would recommend to everyone. While I don’t normally feel the need to put in warnings or disclaimers, I would feel remiss if I didn’t mention that this books does deal with abuse (sexual, physical, mental, drug and self-inflicted) in a very raw and very graphic manner. After the reviews I had had read of A Little Life I was expecting these issues to be dealt with almost gratuitously but I found that Yanagihara dealt with the topics sensitively and with respect, but there was no holding back and, despite not usually being affected by these topics in books, I did find the descriptions of self harm very triggering and difficult to read.