What's book club without cocktails?
(Photo taken at Hotel Delmano)
“A Little Life”, Hanya Yanagihara's latest work of fiction, begins under false pretenses. The opening chapter takes place in a dingy Chinatown restaurant as four seemingly carefree boys discuss banal topics such as the difficulty of securing decent real estate in New York City. The first 400 pages of the novel ricochet between the perspectives of the main characters: Malcolm, the mixed-race aspiring architect from a well-to-do family; JB (Jean-Baptiste), the Haitian stunted artist struggling with addiction; Willem, the handsome, charismatic leader of the group who dreams of becoming a great actor; and Jude, the disfigured, brilliant legal mind with a mysterious past.
The second half of the novel focuses all attention on the evolving relationship between Willem and Jude, as we gradually get more details on Jude’s horrifying backstory. At times the book really tests the reader’s limits. I found myself unable to control my squirming during the scenes that relentlessly recalled Jude’s long-term sexual abuse in vivid detail. At times I felt Jude’s loneliness so profoundly that I thought my own organs were collapsing in on themselves. In one particular instance, after Jude has attempted suicide for the first time, I had to force myself to put the book down and take a break for the sake of my own mental health.
Yet, in spite (or perhaps because) of all the pain that these characters, and we as readers, are forced to endure, I can’t help but think of A Little Life as an optimistic story. True, it does not have a conventionally happy ending, but watching each of the boys experience life in both big and small ways reminds me that even on the worst days, there is eternal hope.
(Photo taken from my new room!)
For whatever reason, sexual abuse- both the actual deed and the various stages of recovery- has become a dominant theme on the bestseller list in recent years. While every survivor’s struggle is unique, Yanagihara’s depiction of the horrendous reality of what it’s like to feel worthless, used and unlovable as a result of what has been done to you will not leave you unaffected. Over the course of the month that I spent reading A Little Life, I felt my mind returning to the lives of the main characters again and again. When I finally finished it, I mourned. I mourned not only for the tragic endings that both Jude and Willem eventually met, but I mounded my own loss. I mourned for the hole that I felt in the pit of my stomach knowing that I could never return to that little respite I had found within these beautiful minds.
Eventually emerging from my narrative-induced haze, I was startled to find that the world around me had remained jut as I’d left it. ‘How could this be?’ I’d asked myself. How can ordinary life go on when such an extraordinary, inexplicable loss has been incurred (pardon the hyperbole) upon my soul? But that is exactly the magic of this book: you cannot go out the way you came in.