Part-way through Hanya Yanagihara's epic 700-page novel A Little Life, I Googled the author and was surprised to find out that she was female. I shouldn't have been surprised that a story that four male college friends over the course of three decades as they love, live and lose was written by a woman, but I think my error is a testament to how successfully Yanagihara manages to put her readers into the head of the central character, Jude. A Little Life is, by turns, brutal and brilliant, devastating and poignant, and exhilarating and exhausting.
The novel opens as Jude and his best friend Willem move into a crappy New York apartment. They are in their mid-twenties and have just finished grad school — Jude at law school and Willem at drama school — and have just moved to the big city to follow their dreams. Their two other friends from college — artist JB and trainee architect Malcolm — also live in the city and the four regularly meet up and remain close.
You think this is going to be another tale of privileged twenty-somethings trying to find themselves in the Big Apple, but the narrative shifts very quickly. First, after the back stories of Willem, JB and Malcolm have been sketched out, JB and Malcolm start to drift off-stage, as the mysterious, beautiful brilliant Jude becomes the nexus of the story, and aspects of his horrific past are slowly revealed, drip by drip. Although the narrative is largely chronological, it is pepped with flashbacks and flash-forwards: sometimes we are given Jude's age as an anchoring point, which is helpful as there are very few clues as to when the novel is set, other than the fact that there is a cell phone in use in the opening scenes.
It is hard to say too much more about the plot without spoiling the novel, and I think it really is better to go into it completely fresh, as I did, but themes of friendship and love, loss and pain, self-hatred and, to some extent, forgiveness all dominate the text. A Little Life is, as I mentioned, a long book, but despite having very few sudden plot twists, it manages to be utterly gripping and I found myself racing towards the — appropriately understated — conclusion. If you read and liked Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, you might also enjoy Yanagihara's novel: the scope, tone and immaculate attention to detail is similar in the two novels.
The lack of well-drawn female characters did jar with me (and this also contributed to my thinking the author was male), but it is, of course, Jude's world we are seeing. For a couple of chapters, the narrative voice switches from third- to first-person, and then to the second-person, and without wishing to spoil too much, I did feel slightly tricked by the second-person once I had read further into the novel.
These quibbles aside, A Little Life is a brilliant novel. It's thoroughly, unapologetically sad, but in an honest, raw way rather than being maukish or maudlin. Some passages are very hard to read without wincing or sobbing, but don't let that put you off because Jude and his friends will stay with you for a long time after you've finished the final page.