If I feel an extreme emotion about a book, it's usually love (A Visit from the Good Squad, Jennifer Egan) or hate / post traumatic stress (Lunar Park, Bret Easton Ellis, which offended me so much I threw it in a dustbin at Cape Town International Airport. RIP.) It's not often I feel both.
As you may have guessed by the buzz surrounding the Man Booker finalist, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is not easy reading. It is a beautifully told epic novel of relentless suffering. So why, when there is so much uncontrollable stress and suffering in the world, would you subject yourself to living in a fantasy world ridden with pain? Where some passages are so difficult to read you end up in tears?
Although A Little Life shook me to the core, it's influence on my own life lingers in a way that I wouldn't undo. No matter where you live in the world, you are undoubtedly surrounded by daily news of rapes, beheadings, murders and wars. It's so easy to lose our empathy, to protect our hearts by desensitising ourselves to it all.
A Little Life challenges us to do otherwise by telling the story of Jude, a successful New York lawyer who comes from a deeply traumatic past. We get a sense of this early in the story by the way he flinches at human contact and how he constantly shrouds his past. We get to know him first as 'one of us,' a normal middle class businessman. Right or wrong, Hanya strips away the protection of making him 'other,' he cannot be written off and dehumanised by his difference. The discovery of what actually happened to him is some of the most devastating reading in literature. However, it grants us with something that may have been buried deep within us: empathy.
I won't reveal too much, but Jude's later life shows us that the effects of childhood abuse manifest long into adulthood. It brings an awareness that when a person is wounded at such a young age, sometimes they never quite recover. It's not a case of going to therapy and getting over it, when you are so small and malleable such trauma permanently warps the clay of your life. It is a distressing reality. Sometimes things don't get better, sometimes people who have been abused find themselves dehumanised over and over because that is the only reality they know.
Now if it was all bleak, it would make for a pretty boring artistic exercise. Where this book really excels, where it really carved a place in my heart, is in it's depiction of compassion. Jude may carry demons on his back every day, but he is not alone. The kindness that his new friends and family show him is the most heart breaking aspect of the whole book.
So yes, it will be difficult. And if you have suffered any form of sexual assault please be gentle with yourself when reading the book and be honest if you think it's best you don't open it at all. But in a world where our first instinct is to roll up our car windows when a beggar walks past, and build higher fences, this novel is a wonderful opportunity to connect with our raw, quivering humanity and remember how beautiful, how broken, our little lives really are.