Last year, Hanya Yanagihara's The People in the Trees was my Tournament of Books "discovery", so of course I couldn't wait to read her latest novel, A Little Life. This is the story of four young men who meet in college, and whose lives intersect in various ways throughout their lives. Mostly it's the story of Jude St. Francis, whose life before meeting his friends turns out to have been absolutely horrific, and how his childhood affects him as an adult, and ends up affecting those close to him, is the bulk of the story. It's a close examination of the lifelong damage trauma causes, and in that sense, it's a searing, difficult book. The author makes it clear up front at Jude has suffered, and she then doles out the backstory in bits and pieces that are sometimes explicit, sometimes not, but always horrifying.
Jude is so damaged that he has learned to hide his past as best he can, and he copes with it by becoming a fierce (and fiercely successful) litigator, and by cutting himself late at night. He is so sure that he has no worth that he refuses to tell his friends what has happened to him, although some of the physical damage is clear. His friends close rank around him, doing their best to care for him and protect him. So in that sense, it's a story of friendship and attempted healing.
When I finished the book, I was in tears because I was moved, but I also had pangs of frustration. I feel more than a little peevish criticizing any aspect of this book, because it's so often beautifully written and so harrowing.
However. At 700+ pages, it's just too long. The scenes of abuse become mind-numbingly repetitive. There are other scenes that are repetitive as well, where friends repeatedly try to help Jude and he shuts them out. Or his doctor tries to get him to seek therapy, and he refuses. We see this over and over again. I think that may be part of the author's intention--she really wants us deep within Jude's life and the horror of it, and the reality is that for him, none of this ever goes away, but plays itself out over and over again.
But, as a reader, how deeply do we need to be aligned with Jude's life? The abuse scenes start to topple into defying credulity--could one person really have suffered all this? Yes, that's naive. Of course one person could suffer this, and likely more than one person has. But it raises the question of what makes fiction work, and making something too lifelike can reduce its readability.
There's also an issue with the intense love and support Jude receives all his life from his friends, who know nothing about his background, except that they guess something might have gone wrong. He repeatedly shuts them out, refuses to tell them anything, which would seem to be more frustrating than the book lets on.
The other issue I had with the friendships is that we don't ever really get to see *why* his friends like him. We spend a great deal of time in Jude's head, where he's filled with self-loathing and misery, but we don't see the outward interactions that would explain why his friends value him so much.
In the end, I'm glad I did read it, and I never had a moment where I felt tempted to stop. But I also can't help thinking that, even though it's a powerful book as is, it could have been even more devastating if it were tightened up and the friendships developed a bit more.
And I still will rush out to read the author's next book.