Another year, another Man Booker Shortlist challenge! Once again, this year I am attempting to read and review all six titles shortlisted for the Booker, before the winner is announced on 13th October. Will I manage to complete the entire shortlist before the deadline? Well, I’ve never managed it yet, but there’s always a first time!
Never one to shirk from a challenge, I started with Hanya Yanagihara’s 736-page, decades-spanning tome A Little Life (my wallet and spine balked at the expense and weight of the hardback, so I went for the ebook version!)
A Little Life is a depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.
When four graduates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome – but that will define his life forever.
Well. Way to set the bar high, Hanya! By the time I was a quarter of the way into A Little Life, I was convinced I was reading the next Booker winner. Despite its length and density, it never felt a chore to read – I raced through it, unable to put it down. It’s the sort of book that makes you slightly resent having to do things like work, eat, sleep, etc! It also left me with a vicious book hangover – four days after I finished it, the characters and plot are still hanging around my head. I sort of feel like the next I read from the shortlist will inevitably suffer by comparison, which is a shame as they do all look very good.
That being said, the further I got through the book, I became less convinced it was a definite winner. Don’t get me wrong, I still rate it very highly and could easily see it taking the prize, but it does eventually start to feel repetitive towards the end. It’s also strangely uneven in terms of pacing and plot.
From the description and the first section (the book is divided into seven sections, corresponding to different phases of the protagonists’ loves), I assumed the book would follow all four characters fairly evenly throughout their lives. The first section is almost entirely told from the perspectives of Willem, Malcolm and JB, with Jude only ever described by the others. It becomes gradually clear throughout the first section that there is something unusual about Jude – the others make oblique references to his secrecy, his physical disabilities, and there are hints of a darker past that they know little of – but it isn’t until the second section that we actually hear from Jude himself.
However from that point on, Yanagihara seems to almost forget about her other characters and focus almost exclusively on Jude – when we see the others, it’s almost totally through the prism of their relationships with Jude. Willem becomes a more prominent character later in the book, but largely because of his closeness with Jude. Malcolm almost totally disappears, which is a real shame – in the first section there are some wonderful passages about his fear of inadequacy, his feeling stifled at the architects’ firm he works for and fearing he’s forgotten how to create, his confusion over his sexuality, but after the first section we don’t really hear from him again. We see him at various times, and learn a tiny bit about his marriage and his later success with setting up his own architecture firm and winning various awards, but we never get a glimpse of his inner life again, which I would really like to have seen.
It’s a similar story with JB. Save for a short section about a third of the way through the book, in which we see JB struggling with drug addiction – which is a wonderfully written exploration of how addicts hurt everyone around them – we don’t get the same internal voice that we had from him in the first section.
It’s understandable that the focus is on Jude though, as he is a compelling and well-realised character. A survivor of horrific childhood abuse, the extent of which those closest to him barely guess at, the main narrative thrust of the book is the lifelong impact of this abuse that Jude struggles, and frequently fails, to deal with.
I was impressed at Yanagihara’s sensitive handling of what could feel a rather exploitative topic. For a long time the nature of the abuse is only hinted at, to the point where I started to wonder if readers were actually going to learn the truth at all. When we do learn the full story, although it makes for harrowing reading it never feels gratuitous (although I wouldn’t recommend this book for people who are triggered by discussions of child abuse, sexual abuse, self-harm or suicide).
This was a tough read in some ways: when reading the early chapters I described it to others as “like having your heart broken a millimetre at a time”. Much of it is heartbreaking, although there are also moments of real joy and beauty throughout.
A Little Life is a complex, flawed, but bold novel, and although I think it could have been more tightly plotted I still believe it would be a worthy Booker winner.