And here I am, tear-stained and exhausted at the end of only the first of this year's Booker Longlist.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a novel of brutal beauty and desperate ugliness. Its surfaces are scarred and flawed with trauma: self harming, sexual abuse, betrayal, but peel these away (and that in itself is painful work) and you get to something real and rare: a book rigorously concerned with the deep philosophical questions of love, beauty, goodness.
There is much to admire in this novel which assembles and then rubs down the structures of our lives: art, law, commerce, morality, but, perhaps, not a great deal to like. Except that we do like, in spite of their flaws, its characters: the beautiful and the damned, the gifted and the blessed, the sordid and the good. The central relationships between the four friends: Jude, JB, Willem and Malcolm primarily and then around Jude, other clusters of important friendships: Julia, Harold, Andy and Richard, form architectures of light and strength in which to hold the themes of the novel. Excruciatingly and patiently Yanagihara suggests again and again that the world is one which must be endured before it can be loved.
The time structure of the novel is equally elegant, foreclosing the future, bringing forward the past, collapsing time into the eternal present of the traumatised and because Yanagihara pays such close attention to structures, it works. What persists is story: the stories we tell ourselves and each other about who we are. If friendship is to mean anything, Yanagihara insists, it must be candid. Indeed the moral universe that the novel creates is one delicately, painstakingly formed through the flimsy assemblages of human love: friendship, filial, paternal, sexual. At the heart of the novel is the single devastating question: Can we be saved by love? and around the stone of that single question ripple out others, equally tough: do we owe it to those who love us to stay alive? is it possible to love unselfishly? where are we doomed? and where might we be saved? And because these are the central questions the book becomes more than just an account of suffering. It is a deeply spiritual book, as equally concerned with redemption as it is with damnation.
It is a raw deal this book: it's rare for a book to make me cry, and this one did, quite a lot. But it's also a wise book, and a book that unfolds for us great tenderness, incomparable beauty and the certain knowledge that at the end of it you have experienced something true about art, and something true about love.
The copyright of this post belongs to Claire Steele