Be warned, this book comes with a general health warning. It is an absolutely visceral read. It tears at your heartstrings, rips at your emotions, at times plucks at your eyes like one of the vultures from ‘The Jungle Book’. On occasion, a bit like that scene in “The Martian” when you – me – come over all faint as Matt gamely has to down tools and sort his wound out (shudder), there are sections in this book that are virtually unreadable, when you have to tear your eyes off the written page and feel the need to physically put the book down and walk away from it.
It didn’t end up winning the Man Booker prize, but this work has swept onto the literary scene and run off with The Guardian readers’ top book for 2015, never mind garnering a whole gamut of nominations for various accolades. Skimming through the many My Favourite Books of 2015 reviews this month, I would guess that it is the book which appears most systematically and which receives the strongest praise (thanks, Sally, for your Powell’s Staff Top Five list, really enjoyed that).
At 720 pages, it already has the look and feel of “The Goldfinch” even before plunging into its pages, and there were several points when I was reminded of Donna Tartt’s style as the book progressed.
To say it’s not for the fainthearted is definitely understating it, and it wasn’t the cheeriest of festive reads over this Christmas period, but by golly it kept me reading into the small hours, and I found myself hoiking the heavy tome out and about with me in the hopes of getting a few more pages under my belt every time I left home. Now that I’m through the treadmill and have been spat out the other side I do agree with the critics who fall on the side of some judicious editing. There are times when as a reader you feel the ongoing variation on the theme to be a bit relentless and over-egged, erring on repetitive – but then I think that is precisely the whole point of this depiction of the unrolling of one very particular life.
In a nutshell then, aside from the ambitious length and the very distressing writing, this is an absolutely extraordinary read. Cleverly abstract with nary a mention of any current events to situate the book in a certain time period, it’s also true that it’s impossible to imagine this novel having been possible even a generation ago. It smacks very much of the here and now, and although I’ve only stepped off a plane twice so far to spend but a very few days in New York (sadly), I have the feeling that the overall atmosphere really does capture a certain flavor of the “capital” of all capital cities.
The notion of the nuclear family taking ‘second place’ to the family you create as you go through life comes through very strongly too, and I was fascinated by the crucial nature of support coming from friends when push comes to shove. I was very slightly unconvinced of the staying power of our four main men, as in all those pages we don’t really get a sense of how such enduring friendships would have been made in the first place, but hey, far be it from me to go casting aspersions. Women also play an almost unnecessary part in the book – I almost felt an apocalyptic sense of the end of the world not so far ahead of the ending of this novel, wondering will any more babies eventually ever be made. Not a criticism, don’t misread me, just saying…
It did read very much like a fable to me in parts: is it really believable that someone would have so much ‘bad luck’ as to encounter the people our hero did one after the other with barely a single ounce of goodness in them every time? It is all terribly black and white, with not a shade of grey anywhere. And is it pushing it a bit that everyone in the story is so remarkably talented or stunningly good looking – or popping off to Paris and on other exotic holidays throughout? Don’t get me wrong, the beauty of this book is actually that as you are reading every word comes across as absolutely credible, and even while it is haunting you afterwards that is no real serious detraction either – so hats off to Ms Yanagihara, basically.
Jude is a character who will remain sharply etched in our collective memories for a very long time to come. It’s our book group meeting next week, and this was our Christmas read, so I am all ears to hear what everyone else thought about it. I would also love to be a fly buzzing on the wall in a hundred years to see how “A Little Life” is perceived then. What’s certain is that it has struck an enormous chord with the public today and deeply reflects our current society. And to close, I’d agree wholeheartedly with and thankfully quote Dianah H. from Powells (which I’d love to visit one day too): “it broke my heart into a million tiny jagged pieces, but I loved every excruciating minute of it”.
Rating : a resounding ‘taking no prisoners’ 10/10
2016 : Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction; 2015 : Man Booker Prize shortlist, National Book Award Finalist for Fiction, Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction