Hanya Yanagihara’s first novel, “The People in the Trees,” dealt with the dark consequences of scientific exploration; her second, the gut-wrenching “A Little Life,” is smaller in scope but deeper, a tragic love story about the ultimate inadequacy of love to heal.
When Jude St. Francis goes to college at 16, all he wants is to erase his previous life. Some of his damage is obvious: legs shattered in what he calls “a car injury” have left him with a halting gait and episodes of severe pain. Other wounds are secret, self-inflicted; Jude cuts himself, and will do so throughout his life. For him, the cutting is therapeutic, the only way he can continue to pretend he’s normal, the only way to quiet “the creature inside him — which he pictures as slight and raggedy and lemur-like, quick-reflexed and ready to spring, its dark wet eyes forever scanning the landscape for further dangers.”
Jude’s freshman roommates — Willem, Malcolm and J.B. — become his first friends, despite his reticence about his past. He’s closest to Willem, who is from the start the one he trusts; in the cramped apartment they share in Chinatown while they begin their careers (Jude becomes a lawyer, Willem an actor), Willem begins to understand how truly broken Jude is, though not the details of why. For more than 30 years, Willem will try to help him, as a friend and eventually as a partner, and Jude will try to see himself as the person Willem believes him to be. They will both fail.
The scope of Jude’s trauma is only gradually revealed, a blessing for the reader; his childhood is a chronicle of violence, sexual abuse and the methodical dismantling of his sense of self. Even as an adult, Jude is unable to leave it behind: “Why,” he asks himself, “can he not simply take pleasure in his present? … Why does [his past] become more vivid, not less, the further he moves from it?”
Structurally, there are missteps: Early diversions into Malcolm’s and J.B.’s points of view are interesting but unnecessary as the book’s focus narrows to Jude and Willem. And passages in first person from the perspective of the law professor who becomes Jude’s adoptive father are somewhat jarring. But these narrative lapses by no means reduce the book’s power.
“A Little Life” is a harrowing novel with no happy ending, yet Yanagihara writes so well that it’s difficult to put it down, even in the midst of sobbing. Somehow, it’s an ordeal to read and a transformative experience, not soon forgotten.
Anna Andersen is a freelance writer in Wichita, Kan.