Written in dense, and often complex, prose, Yanagihara takes her time in establishing the four characters and the social circle they create within themselves, which makes for an incredibly slow start. But by the final act of the novel, you instantaneously recognise why this was done. Yanagihara creates characters that arouse a certain familiarity, Willem wants to make it as an actor, JB flourishes in experimental art, Malcom thrives as an Architect and Jude becomes a high-profile lawyer, we casually dip in and out as casually as friends meet for coffee. Importantly they all conjure up a chemistry between themselves that is admirable and rewarding, yet easily discoverable within our own self, the sincerity of human relationships. We become so close and intimate with these characters so much so that I felt like I was living in that very apartment in downtown Manhattan with Willem and Jude; by the end of the novel it was truly heartbreaking to say goodbye to these characters. Though the narrative is mostly Jude's perspective, we do get fleeting moments of JB, Willem, Malcom and Jude's adoptive parents. The trouble is, outside of this group narrative, other characters are pushed aside in order to progress the narrative. Names pop up every so often, but we never know what they say or how they feel. This is an exclusive narrative limited to a group of friends left to explore the world.
This is not to say 'A Little Life' is an easy read. Once Jude emerges as the central protagonist, we are given excerpts of the troubled past Jude speaks of, and it is as disturbing as you can imagine. Yanagihara's writing of this difficult matter of sexual and physical abuse is graphic and utterly heart-wrenching, that at times I had to simply put down the novel and take a moment before carrying on. Yet the sheer, unforgiving yet compelling nature of the novel absorbs you entirely, time after time your heart breaks for "St. Jude" as he is often nicknamed, but still the novel leaves you with the tiniest amount of hope that things could, and might, get better. I suppose the title 'A Little Life' seems apt, the scale of human life, though grand it may seem, is relatively small and quick, and though Jude falls and falls, there is always a little life in him that seems to hold on in the most gruesome and unimaginable circumstances.
Quintessentially 'A Little Life' is a novel about the raw essence of humanity, what goodness it may bring and what horrors it can succumb to. Truly, I have never read a book that crushed my heart the way Yanagihara did nor will I be able to forget Jude, or Willem or even JB and the impact they made on my own life. Outstanding, disturbing and thoroughly engrossing, 'A Little Life' will trap you in its anguish and will shake you to your very soul, refusing to leave your mind. An absolute triumph.