Oh, my. I can’t remember when I last read a book so immersive as A Little Life (Doubleday, digital galley), the kind that makes you oblivious to the world around you because the story becomes your reality. Hanya Yanagihara’s beautifully written second novel is both tragic and triumphant in its depiction of friendship over time, the way in which the past impinges on the present. Unafraid of the dark, it can be as hard to read as it is to put down.
Four culturally diverse college roommates relocate to New York City after graduation to pursue their separate ambitions while still sustaining their bonds. J.B. is the Haitian-American artist who finds success painting portraits of his friends. Malcolm, the bi-racial son of wealthy professionals, searches for love and happiness as an architect. Willem, kind and compassionate since his boyhood on a Montana ranch, works as a waiter until his talents as an actor are recognized. Then there’s enigmatic Jude, who begins his brilliant ascent as an attorney, and who has never talked about his past nor the trauma that left him physically disabled. Willem, with whom he shares a shabby apartment, is both flattered and perplexed when he overhears Jude saying he tells Willem everything because it just isn’t true.
“In more generous, wondering moments, he imagined Jude as a magician whose sole trick was concealment, but every year, he got better and better at it, so now he only had to bring one wing of the silken cape he wore before his eyes and he would become instantly invisible, even to those who knew him best.”
Skilled at deflecting personal questions and setting boundaries, Jude eventually can’t hide all his secrets, the demons haunting him. He wears long sleeves — always — because he cuts himself, although those scars aren’t nearly as deep as the ones on his back, or the burn mark on his hand. Jude’s horrific childhood of physical and sexual abuse is gradually revealed in heart-wrenching bits and pieces, much in the way memory works. His doctor, Andy, knows some things, and his mentor, Harold, knows others. Willem, whose feelings for Jude intensify over time, witnesses his bouts of extreme pain, the nights when he forsakes bed for the solace of a razor blade. More and more, A Little Life is about Jude, and the love and loyalty he inspires among his friends who struggle to help him.
As a reviewer, I can tell you there are things wrong with this book. At 700-plus pages, it is overly long and sometimes repetitious. Female characters get short shrift; one of the four friends practically disappears from the narrative. On occasion, the perspective shifts abruptly, and time passes with little reference to outside events. I also can tell you, how as a reader, none of this mattered. I love this book.