I have GOT to lighten up. So far this year the books I have blogged have revolved around a murder in Central Park, a marriage disintegrating in Colombia, and now I have moved on to a book of a mere 832 pages about a character who suffers almost unimaginable abuse as a child – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
The novel begins with a familiar premise – four friends from college move to New York to begin their adult lives. Is this an updated male version of Mary McCarthy's “The Group”? The men are all smart, talented and witty, and it's entertaining to watch as each finds his footing in his profession – art, architecture, acting and law. But gradually the story begins to narrow its focus onto Jude, the most enigmatic of the four. What he has endured in his childhood, revealed in flashbacks, has left him in such physical and emotional pain that he resorts to cutting himself to try to gain control over it. His friends try to help and protect him, his kindly and paternal law school professor adopts him, but his past continues to haunt him. Are you still reading this? Yes, it is just as grim as it sounds.
Why did I keep going? It was hard to look away. And in between the dark scenes of trauma and brutality were tender scenes of friendship among the four men that continued over decades. The writing is uneven, and did all the characters have to turn out to be SO successful? But the book relentlessly asks serious questions about the meaning of suffering, the limits of psychiatry, the power of friendship.