I have to admit that it can sometimes take very little to get me to buy a new book. An author with a Japanese name and some effusive praise on a London billboard was all it took to get me to invest in Hanya Yamashita’s A Little Life – I didn’t really have any clue what it was even going to be about. Of course, the book then languished on my Kindle for several years before I actually got around to reading it, but once I’d cracked its virtual cover, I was hooked.
A Little Life starts out as the story of four twenty-something men. The quartet met and became friends in college, but now are trying to carve out lives for themselves in New York. There’s JB, an artist whose family’s unconditional belief in his greatness means that he’s never once questioned that one day he will become a breakout hit. There’s Willem, who longs to break onto the acting scene, but in the meantime has to support himself as a waiter at a fancy restaurant. There’s Malcolm, an architect who still lives with his parents, but yearns for both independence and to step out of the shadow of his brilliant sister. And finally, there’s Jude, a hard-nosed lawyer whose health problems inspire protectiveness from his friends, but who refuses to ever broach the subject of his difficult past, or his furtive self-harming.
At first, the book flits between the perspectives of these four characters, giving us insights into the lives and aspirations of each. Even at this early stage, one character stands out – the mysterious and effusive Jude. There’s a lot neither we nor his best friends know about Jude, and a thirst to find out what happened to him in the past, and what drives him to hurt himself, push us forward through the narrative.
Indeed, as the plot advances and the characters move into their thirties and beyond, the other three turn more into supporting characters for Jude’s story. Jude’s life has not been easy, and as we gradually learn exactly how his horrific past has translated into a troubled present, we can’t help but be uneasy for him. Much as I felt compelled to keep reading the book for long stretches, large parts of it can be quite emotionally difficult and draining. With its frequent references to child abuse and graphic depictions of self-harm and bodily damage, this is hardly the kind of light-hearted read you might pick for a relaxing holiday. Worse yet is the constant feeling of foreboding, the sense that something worse might be around the corner – even a section named “The Happy Years” is not enough to put the reader’s mind at rest.
Arguably, Jude’s story is so unrelentingly sad that it comes across as too much for one character – could one person really go through all this? I’ve seen this criticism levelled at the book, but at the same time, I have no desire to put myself through the trauma of researching whether there are real lives that have been just as bad. It’s not hard, after all, to imagine that someone who was put into an emotionally and physically vulnerable position at a very young age would come out more damaged and less able to avoid such situations in the future – one bad thing leading to another.
A Little Life is a compelling read, but it is not an easy one. If you make it to the end of its 800+ pages, you will have been taken on a journey to some very dark and traumatic places. It’s definitely worth reading – but before starting, be sure you have the emotional resilience to make it through.