This beautiful book was described to me as both the ‘gay novel of the decade’ and ‘a story of 4 men and their journey through life’, descriptions that I found both confusing and frustrating the deeper I got into the story. To me, the story of four men soon vanished and before long, the book was the story of one man, Jude St. Francis, and a story of remarkable love and friendship between the men (and to a lesser part, the women) in his life.
The novel in its 700 pages reads like a timeless classic. Nowhere in the book are you bogged down by an age or a time or place to be. Nowhere in the story are you trying to figure out if the book is set in the 1970s or 1980s, or whether the story takes place in New York or San Fransisco. The characters in the story seem to live in strange ‘now’ that never seems to change much and largely ignores the reality of what goes on in the world around them. The space and time within which the story is immaterial and insignificant and it allows you to get absorbed in a deep emotional connect with the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
‘A little life’ is a human story, one about raw human emotions, about pain and suffering and above all, about love and friendship. The story makes you question and think about your understanding of the complexities of human nature and the extent to which human beings have a need to be loved and understood and cared for. A need that seems to play well into conceived notions of femininity, but is rarely looked for or understood in our notions of masculinity. It breaks down the normative in what we consider male and female, in what we consider right or wrong or in what deem to see as good and bad. It breaks down structures set for what we see as straight and gay. It questions the need to understand oneself as black or white. But most of all it dissipates the formed structures and rules that surround our ideas of male friendship.
Reading the book, I fell in love with Jude. I fell in love with his vulnerability, his ability to try and love even when he was faced with vile hate. I fell in love with the softness of his character and almost felt a need to protect him in a way his friends try and shield him from the world. To understand the pain that he feels and the pain that he inflicts on himself was not within my comprehension, but to read about it gave me an insight into a type of violence that is rarely spoken about.
The book puts you through an exhausting roller coaster of trauma, from self abuse to rape, addiction and suicide. As a reader you begin to tire and cringe at the level of pain and suffering the character is being put through. It was almost unbearable and I had to put the book down many times as I could not stand the pain and the violence. But Yanagihara’s writing made me pick it up again, almost immediately, and I endured the pain and the beauty of her story right till the end.