A Little Life – a review

It has been a while since I wrote a book review.

I rely on the reviews of others heavily, so my reluctance to put virtual pen to virtual paper is likely poor form. That said, if I’m reviewing books that I’ve read, based on he review of others, am I am adding any value? Well perhaps only to those who place value in my opinion because they either love the books I love, or hate the books I love and will read them and can thereby avoid them.

This month I feel inspired to share. In a completely unintentional way I stumbled across three great reads, with interleaved themes, one after another.

The first was A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

I heard part of a review on Radio National a while back, enough to pique my interest enough to add it to my Audible Wish List, but not enough for me to buy it straight away. Having had a steady diet of fairly average reads I decided the time had come to give this one a go.

This is a novel that needs to come with a warning.  There are parts of this book that are harrowing. There are themes of physical, sexual and emotional abuse here. There is also self harm and suicide (theme one that cuts across the three novels in this review).

These days I read with my ears, and in this case I’m glad I did.  I don’t know that I would have made it through had I been reading old style. It would have been easy to put the book aside during some of the horrific scenes and perhaps not be brave enough to pick it up again.

The tale follows four young men. Not a new structure.  It doesn’t start as young as Stand By Me, but the friendship of four guys is common in film, perhaps more so that in novels now I think about it. The two main characters are Jude and Willem.

Jude’s heartbreaking story is alluded to from the beginning, but is reveled in pieces throughout. The cruelty of people to other people cannot be truly balanced by anything, but the love, devotion and care of the friends and family he acquires comes as close as it is imaginable to get. In fact, there is a part of me that envies Jude the love and devotion he receives from these people. I think very few people are on the receiving end of so much unconditional understanding. And you give thanks when reading this book that he gets that love and understanding. He deserves it, and so much more.

Making up the rest of the foursome Malcolm and JB are more vehicles for Jude’s story than characters in their own right, to my reading anyway. They do have a lot to say about society and friendship but have relatively little story of their own.

Jude’s relationship with his adoptive father and his doctor are richer. Harold’s affection and devotion to Jude are everything you would hope a father’s love for his son would be.  I know few father’s who would be quite so tolerant in real life.  Likewise his friend and doctor Andy.  This is perhaps one of the most conflicted relationships in the novel.  The duty of care hurdles Andy has to face are so deeply challenging.  I’d love to have a conversation with a real life doctor to see how they read that relationship.

I think you could tell someone the entire plot of  A Little Life and not ruin it.  The writing is beautiful, and the narration by Oliver Wyman was bang on.

The questions that linger with me some time after reading are, how do you keep your own sense of welling being when supporting someone who is filled with so much such doubt? I deal with self doubt myself, but never anything near as crippling as that which Jude has to carry. Knowing what to say or do when a loved one is depressed is a challenge many people face, and I’m yet to know anyone who knows the answers to that. It’s hard, it’s heart breaking, it is frustrating at times.

The latter part of the book left me bereft, and yet thankful that there are kind, loving, careful people in the world, because these characters are very believable to me.

I would recommend this book to anyone with a heart, and a desire to have a deeper connection to what it is to be a friend, a lover, and a family. Pick the right moment, the right mood, and have a good friend on speed dial just in case.  I feel forever changed by A Little Life.

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