The Kirkus Prize for Fiction winner was announced today. Hanya Yanagihara received the $50,000 award for A Little Life. (I posted brief plot summaries of the other five finalists on October 3.)
I have read the winner and posted my review on August 10. In honour of the book’s win, I am reposting my review:
Review of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Every year I seem to read one 700+-page novel. This is the one for 2015. I just finished it and feel as if I’ve been on an emotional roller-coaster ride for the last few days. Whew! I won’t soon forget this one.
The book is about the lives of four young men who became friends in university and moved to New York to begin their careers. They are Willem Ragnarsson, a waiter and wanna-be actor whose family ranched in Wyoming; Malcolm Irvine, a biracial man from a wealthy family who is beginning his career as an architect; J.B. Marion, the son of Haitian immigrants whose goal is to become a renowned artist; and Jude St. Francis, a lawyer about whose past virtually nothing is known. We see how they maintain their friendships as they become established in their professions. Gradually, though, the focus turns to Willem and Jude’s friendship and the revelation of Jude’s traumatic childhood.
Though the book covers about 40 years, there is a timelessness to it. There are no references to specific years or historical events, though it is clearly set in contemporary times. For example, 9/11 receives no mention. This sense of things happening in an eternal present gives the book a fable-like quality.
This is not an easy book to read. There are graphic depictions of suffering. Abandonment, physical and sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, rape, prostitution, addiction, self-harm, domestic violence, suicide, and grief are detailed, so readers need to be prepared for an emotionally harrowing experience. Most of these miseries are revealed in flashbacks to Jude’s early life, “the snake- and centipede-squirming muck of Jude’s past.” The relentlessness of Jude’s traumas reminded me of Sisyphus, though Jude has committed no great sin. The novel can be seen as an examination of the effects of trauma. Jude emerges from his upbringing physically and emotionally damaged: “those fifteen years whose half-life have been so long and so resonant . . . have determined everything he has become and done.” Chronic pain, shame, insecurity, and self-hatred are just some of the effects. Because of what happened to him, Jude can think of his life only in terms of “its smallness, its worthlessness.”
On the other hand, the book is also an examination of friendship. Willem thinks about friendship: “Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.” Later, he tells Jude, “’I know my life’s meaningful because . . . I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.’”
Though friendship has its value, certainly giving Jude some solace, the book also suggests that it has its limitations. The friendships Jude has cannot repair him. As in All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a character concludes, “how hard it is to keep alive someone who doesn’t want to stay alive.”
It is some of these friends who are a weakness in the novel. For thematic development, it is necessary for Jude to have friends. The difficulty is that he has so many who remain unstintingly loyal and concerned regardless of his behaviour. It would be expected that some of those friends would fall away, tiring of his repeated actions, but that is not the case. No one ever seems to outgrow a friendship. Except for Willem, Malcolm and J.B., however, those friends are not differentiated. Often, they are just listed: “Citizen, or Rhodes, or Eli, or Phaedra, or the Henry Youngs” and “Andy, JB, Richard, Harold and Julia, Black Henry Young, Rhodes, Citizen, Andy again, Richard again, Lucien, Asian Henry Young, Phaedra, Elijah.” Willem, when trying to explain to Jude who he is, says, “’You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.’”
But the characterization of Jude can only be called amazing. His inner turmoil is detailed so specifically that there is a vividness to his character that will remain with the reader for a long time. We may not approve of his behaviour and we may want to shake him and yell at him, but we will certainly understand his motivation.
This dark and disturbing novel will leave the reader almost overwhelmed. It is a totally immersive read. Though it may seem implausible in parts, it will nevertheless leave a lasting impression. I’m in awe that all that was accomplished in only 700+ pages.