It’s a long story

NWN Durham Reading Group’s first meeting of 2017 presented a challenge as we surfaced from our yuletide excesses to discuss our Christmas read, ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara. Despite the promise of the title it is not a short novel, in fact it is over 700 pages and not an easy subject matter to digest alongside turkey and Christmas pudding. Fortunately, the Durham group can face most challenges head on and the majority present had completed reading the book.

pic 1I was initially seduced by the authors intriguing characterizations and description of a group of accomplished young men who meet at college and form enduring friendships. One of them, Jude, is reticent and secretive about his past, unable to share in childhood reminiscence. As another reader commented, this almost had echoes of Donna Tart and ‘The Secret History’. The author paints a convincing picture of how Jude succeeds in forming relationships without his own self-revelation. Carefully he encourages friends to talk of themselves and deflects their questions without antagonising them. We become curious as to how all their lives will unfold as they navigate careers and relationships. The narrator focuses on their individual emerging identities and the pain of forming identities in their social groupings amongst artists, actors, architects and lawyers. There are numerous references to the pressures imposed by academic, artistic and professional subcultures as each young man grapples with uncertainty, shame and humiliation in his circumstances, whatever his background. Even wealthy parents can be a source of shame for a son who cannot support himself financially, like Malcolm. Choices of employment are subject to the harsh scrutiny of peers, carelessly disapproving of work that does not pursue the true ideals of artists and right thinking people. Corporate sell out is despised. The descriptive detail in this first 200 pages is vivid, skilful and engaging, such as JB’s journey to his studio: –

The other aspect of those weekday-evening trips he loved was the light itself; how it filled the train like something living as the cars rattled across the bridge, how it washed the weariness from his seatmates faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country… watch that kind light suffuse the car like syrup…

The description of JB’s painting and defiance of the art world’s norms is fascinating. At times, the author’s portrayal of artists is astute: –

somewhere inside you, whether you were making out with someone in a bar or having dinner with your friends, was always your canvas, its shapes and possibilities floating embryonically behind your pupils…

pic 2As the narrative progresses, however and we realise that the main story is Jude, his identity as a victim and relentless self -harming I rapidly lost interest with the repetitive nature of the material. I yearned for emotional depth and intriguing plot as I dutifully read the book through. I was repulsed by the emphasis on the details of the self-harming and the predominance of victimhood. Others in the group, however, remained gripped by the intrigue of the relationships and the characters throughout. For several readers, it was a greatly praised novel. Indeed, it came with great expectations arising from its numerous glittering reviews and Booker prize shortlisting for 2015.

We mainly debated the nature of Jude’s relationships. How believable were his relationships with Harold and with Willem? Why did Harold adopt him as an adult? What motivated Willem to be Jude’s carer, and eventually his lover? Can people like this be helped or saved from such tragic lives? What did the title mean? I have since found a passage referring to Willem feeling he had such ‘a little life’ in comparison with his artistic peers. He is at a party being asked about his commitment to his acting and whether he feels he is having to compromise his artistic ideals to be successful. He, Jude, JB and Malcolm are all professionally successful in a big way but he feels diminished in the eyes of those whose values matter to him.

At times, we contemplated the fairy tale or pantomime quality to some of the plot, the abused child being rescued by a fairy godfather, a loyal companion and a handsome prince. This had no fairy tale ending, however and left me craving beauty. I am reminded of Keats lines from Ode on a Grecian Urn:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, –that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Yanagihara’s novel describes characters enmeshed in one man’s mistaken flight from being known, forever trapped in deceit: a physically beautiful man forever hiding the ‘ugly’ truth.

Angela Douglas

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