Please note - This post contains descriptions of self harm and childhood trauma. Some may find the content in this article distressting or triggering. For support or information call: Lifeline 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467, Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800, MensLine 1300 78 99 78.
For Book Club last month I managed to read a 720-page book in the space of about 72 hours. It was an all-consuming, thrilling and compelling weekend that left me drained, exhausted and with incredibly sore arms. There will be some spoilers here. I’ll try to not to give away any major plot points that you won’t have learned within the first 100 pages of this lengthy novel, but I can’t promise to keep you completely unspoiled.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara starts gently, as we are introduced to the four main characters – Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB. They first meet each other at college, and become each other’s firmest and best friends. Jude and Willem are especially close. They graduate, and start to face up to the usual challenges of finding work, accommodation, relationships.
I knew going into this novel that it wasn’t going to be a comfortable read. The words “harrowing” , “deeply disturbing” and “emotionally taxing” littered the reviews on the cover. I’d overhead conversations and reviews where the terms “horrific”, “revolting” and “psychologically miserable” had been mentioned. In short, I knew before the opening sentence that this was probably going to be my sort of tale.
And soon enough, the book finds itself within the landscape of severe complex childhood trauma. The novel focuses in on Jude, whose coming-of-age tale is suffused with suffering, repeated physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and self-harm. Flashbacks from Jude’s childhood irrupt into the story and become progressively more horrifying. We learn Jude was abandoned as a child, taken into a monastery where he was abused and raped, and, later, kidnapped and prostituted by one of the brothers (the only consistently kind person in his life until then), who taught Jude to cut himself to alleviate his shame and guilt.
But Yanagihara doesn’t have redemption in mind for Jude. The gradual unveiling of Jude’s childhood coincides with the deterioration of his adult body. His halting gait – a result of an “injury” - is replaced by a wheelchair. And his compulsive self-harming becomes more effusive and obsessive as the flashbacks of the trauma he endured escalate. And the self-harming depictions are graphic. Jude’s arms become so laddered with scar tissue that the skin is “taut as a roasted duck’s".
He has long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and now he recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.
Despite the repetitive (and they are really repetitive) scenes involving blood (which has been known to make me faint), Jude and his story was completely compelling and it was almost impossible to tear my eyes away (even from the really graphic sections) over the two days I read it. I felt completely immersed in Jude and his world even while the critical part of my brain was standing back asking questions about whether all of this description was necessary and how this many people could really structure so much of their lives around helping and supporting this one badly-damaged friend, or devising intervention strategies in the plot to fight off what I was predicting.
And I think I was so completely enthralled because for me this was a book about friendship and connection when things are really, really, really shit. And Yanagihara had created the perfect conditions for me to be able to empathise with everyone involved in Jude’s experience. I could relate to Jude’s compulsive need and desire to self-harm, his thoughts and desires for relief from his psychological torment, his hesitations and doubts around honesty and trust and the isolation and shame he felt. Similarly, I felt Willem’s frustration and helplessness that the man he loved was hurting himself to such a degree, wasn’t being open and honest with him and his desire and need to “fix” things. And it was heartbreaking and tragic. But it was beautiful, because despite all of these barriers, this relationship endures. And it gave me further hope for the capacity for love and connection despite someone being so unwell.
Some people have criticised this book noting that the main character is put through too much misery, gratuitously heaping hardship upon Jude in what some people consider a kind of “torture porn.” I didn’t find this to be the case. I found Jude’s experiences to (unfortunately) be incredibly believable. Much as we might hate to think about it, brutal physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children does occur, and does produce lifelong consequences. One of these consequences is that these children grow up to be more likely to experience further physical, emotional and sexual abuse as adults as well as significant mental health issues. With one exception later in the novel, nothing that happens to Jude in his later life is random bad luck; almost everything he goes through is organically and causally connected to the abuse he experienced as a child, and because of that I found it completely believable.
For me, A Little Life posed a really interesting, and somewhat uncomfortable questions. An unanswered question, that’s still lingering a bit. What’s the value of a life if it is circumscribed by a physical disability and mental torment? If a person is unable to meet the standards of “happiness” that our society seems to think normal — if professional success, which Jude does achieve, is unable to ever be supported by rewarding, stable relationships, mutual trust, sexual satisfaction and a sense of inner well-being — can that life still have value? The question isn’t “Can a person overcome the trauma of abuse?”, rather it is “What does it mean to ‘overcome’?” If a person’s life doesn’t fit the blueprint of what we consider “overcoming” or “surviving” childhood abuse and trauma, is that life meaningful?
Jude does achieve a lot throughout the book – educational qualifications of the highest order, professional success and a network of people in his adult life who care deeply about him, she never gives him a break from the inner torment. The “cures” that in books and movies often seem to suggest they will lead to complete healing — therapy, and true love — are both available to Jude, but neither “works” in the way we’d like to believe it will. A person can have available to him all the things that society says should “fix” the problem, but the problem remains. Right up to the end of the book, moments that promise hope, healing and a hint of resolution — moments where another author might have chosen to end Jude’s story — are undercut by reminders that pain is still there and the scars never fully heal. Hope and horror remain balanced throughout the book: prompting us to ask, if a character never truly “gets better,” does that negate the value of those moments of hope, love and connection? Do those moments still have value even if they don’t add up to healing? Is it in those moments that the value of this “little life” can be found?
The title is revealing in another way. Jude’s three best friends — the actor, the artist and the architect — all wish for big lives. They all want to be successful, admired, famous in their fields. Jude, by contrast, only wants the “little life” of normalcy that everyone else takes for granted: days without pain, intimate relationships built on trust instead of fear and dishonesty, the ability to sleep peacefully through the night without constantly confronting the horrors of the past. But, like so many people with chronic physical and mental pain, Jude finds that this simple, “little” life, the normal life, is beyond his grasp. That it remains so is what makes the book so sad and frustrating and — for all the ways in which it forces the reader to suspend disbelief — ultimately, I think, so true to life.
I only really have one complaint about this hefty read. I think it really needed a trigger warning (like the one I put at the top of this post). However, I have banged on way too much for today, so my thoughts on the necessity of trigger warnings (even in art?) will have to wait for another day.
Undoubtedly, A Little Life is one of the most challenging books we will read, and definitely not for everyone. But if you are interested in a read full of empathy, compassion, kindness, grace and friendship through the (sometimes) unsettling lens of severe trauma I would suggest taking on the challenge. Just be aware, it may be triggering for some.