I made it! This was the last book on the Baileys shortlist and I finished with a day to go before the announcement. So – is A Little Life a contender for the prize?
This is a weighty book even in paperback form, 720 pages. I don’t mind that. I quite enjoy a longer book as long as it can justify its length. And the premise does promise that: four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York. We are to follow their lives over decades, as ‘their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride.’ So far so good.
This synopsis is a little misleading. This isn’t really the story of four men, it is the story of one. After a few early chapters cursorily sketching out the background of three of the men, we narrow in on the main protagonist: Jude St Francis. This is Jude’s story – the many characters orbit him like he is the sun, their every thought seems linked to his wellbeing even when they have bigger concerns that they should be dealing with. This, for me, was the main fault of this novel. Because as a reader I couldn’t see why he should have so much power over everyone. He wasn’t particularly likeable, narcissistic and selfish, character traits that had cause but over the course of such a number of pages began to wear my patience thin.
Jude is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Much has been made of the relentless depiction of what Jude goes through at the hands of various adult men, from the age of around eight until fifteen, that I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention here. Personally I think that scary topics should be brought up and not sugar-coated. His personal story is unique but terrible things happen to children every day, and perhaps if the nurse that Jude saw before the worst had taken place had read this book she may have been more inclined to report his abuse. However, he seems spectacularly unlucky – to be abused so horrifically by several separate adults, none of them linked, in different states and institutions – it seems a little unlikely, though we are told that Jude is beautiful as an explanation.
Jude’s looks also excuse a lot. His lack of personality makes his popularity a mystery; it leaves only beauty and pity as reasons. Oh, and his success. All four of the friends become ridiculously successful, American dream successful. Jude is a ruthless litigator, rising as far as to be offered chairman of his firm; Willem starts off as a believable struggling actor and waiter only to become a Hollywood A lister; JB ends up with his own art gallery, a show at MoMA and his works selling for large sums; Malcolm has his own company, architect to the rich and famous, designing public buildings across the world. Even bystander characters have to be successful, there is no allowance for mediocrity here. Which does help as Jude’s health gets worse because we all know that he could never afford his treatments in the US if he weren’t a millionaire by that stage of his life.
What I admired about this book was its boldness. Yanagihara is not afraid to confront hard topics such as abuse. There is drug addiction and its consequences, Jude’s ongoing self harm which was much harder to read that the abuse inflicted on him by others. It deserves its place on the awards shortlists for that. However, I didn’t buy into the characters at all, mainly because they are presented as just that – puppets used to move the story forward. They live in a very sterile and pretentious environment. There was also too much telling versus showing. Perhaps because Jude is so annoying (constant relentless self-pity is not an attractive trait, even in someone so horribly abused) we have to be told that his friends are all obsessed with him. I also found it difficult to imagine the men growing older. Their lives, apart from their work, seemed stagnant. There was no emotional development in evidence.
I was also a little confused by the decision to have two of the four ‘main characters’ be black when the author then painted them in vague stereotypes and pretty much discarded them apart from when they could interact with Jude. JB and Malcolm had very little time on the page, apart from to upset Jude at various points. I did wonder if it was a publishing decision to pitch the book as the story of the four men as there are other characters who appear much more than JB and Malcolm and have more part within the story.
So, what is my overall verdict? It is a book that I would recommend people to read, even though it is never going to be up there on a list of my favourites. It’s a book that should not work at all, and yet it kind of does, despites its many flaws. It deserves its place on the Baileys Prize shortlist. Whether it deserves to win or not is going to come down to which camp the judges fall into: this is a book that you will either love, or love to hate.
My other Baileys Prize shortlist reviews: