Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life

I like stories about friends, and what friends do for friends. That I think has got a lot to do with the way I have grown up – away from my family for the most part, so you mend and make do the heartache that comes with the territory. One of my first favourite quotes was something along the lines of, “Family are stuck with you, but friends stick around because they want to”. I think I got that from a Mills and Boon novel. (What, you didn’t think I came out of my mother’s womb reading Camus and Proust, did you?)

Yanigahara’s group of four friends – six or seven if you count Harold, Andy and Richard – hooked me because from the outset it was clear that this was about love. Not your bog-standard romantic love – although it gets to that as the story goes – but something a lot more pure: love for love’s sake. [This is where I complain about the world ‘love’ in the English language: there is only one word for it, and so confusion ensues as to what kind of love is love. The Malay language has a lot more nuance about this: splitting it into kasih, sayang and cinta. But you’ve heard that rant before].

The story revolves around Jude, an up-and-coming lawyer at the beginning of the story, assigned with a past and a backstory that many authors would only treat around the periphery. Yanighara, however, tackles the issue of child abuse head on – and none of this Dave Pelzer stuff, either. This is much rawer stuff we skirt around because it beggars belief that people would subject children to such things, and we think if we don’t talk about it then maybe it doesn’t have to exist. Fact: it does.

Jude and his three friends – JB, Malcolm and Willem – came together as a foursome through that random assignation that is college roommates. Fortunately, the principled lawyer, the aspiring artist, the conflicted architect and the jobbing actor respectively found common ground between them and this sets them up as four adults traversing the metropole of New York. Their lives intersect in different ways, but despite the fact that the main character is Jude, the main narrator switches between them and the ‘extras’ : Harold the law professor, Andy the doctor and Richard the sculptor.

Not that they fall in love with each other – two of them do, though, and another is gay as well: making Garth Greenwell  declare in The Atlantic that this was “the long-awaited gay novel”. You could see it that way: in the same way many people see Blue is the Warmest Colour to be a lesbian movie. It is, on the surface (and thanks to a gratuitious extended in-the-sack scene) but peel back only the outer layers and you start seeing that the movie is essentially a love story with a healthy dose of heartbreak: perhaps the only merit of having women as the lead characters is that I could not see a male actor deliver such heartbreak in the way women emote without even saying things.

But I digress.

Yes, I suppose the novel does try to present the lives of gay people in New York as the new normal; this however isn’t the crux of the story. That isn’t what gets you gripped through the 720-odd pages, and it isn’t what keeps you curled under the blanket on a chilly morning reading. There is a story here, and it frustrates you and it strums your heartstrings and in the end it made me believe that love is really what matters: the love for another human being you call a friend, the people you trust or who trust you enough that sometimes you don’t ask questions before the clean-up.

It was both poignant and perhaps unfortunate that I was reading this during a time when one of my close friends passed on suddenly: a friend, like me, who also called foreign lands home. The book reminded me that with some people you do everything you can, not because it makes a difference but because that’s love.

Read this book. Read it, so you can remember what it is like to feel.

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