A review in the sadly defunct Time Out Film Guide used to begin: ‘favourite films are hard to describe’. This is true of some books too. I have never read a book quite like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, let alone published one, and I fear I can think of no comparisons that give any more than the most superficial sense of what reading the book is like.
On the face of it, Yanagihara’s second novel (which is also utterly different from her first) tells the story of four ambitious young men who have moved to New York after college, of how their lives and careers develop and their friendships continue and change as they grow into middle age. And it is indeed a very interesting portrayal of male friendship, of its strengths and limitations, and not least because it is written by a woman. This is as far from Butch and Sundance or Big Bang Theory as a portrayal of male friendship could be.
But, as the book develops, it becomes something else, as it increasingly focusses on one of the four, Jude, whose childhood and parentage for long remain obscure even to his closest friends. Jude is obviously damaged, physically and probably psychologically. But why? And how? What exactly happened to him when he was young? How damaged – and perhaps self-destructive – have his experiences left him? How can his friends best respond to what they gradually learn about him? And how can a man respond to a friend’s pain, when male friendship is often a matter of what is not said, rather than what is? As the review in the New York Daily News put it, the book ‘asks a compelling question: Can friends save us? Even from ourselves?’
It is Jude’s story that makes A Little Life truly remarkable. It is a profoundly serious novel and yet the experience of reading it is more like watching a soap opera than reading a literary novel – some of the story it has to tell is shocking and profoundly sad, yet the book is strangely hard to put down. The precision with which Yanagihara observes her characters brings them to life to such a degree that the experience of reading the book is almost like reading about one’s own friends. Each of the three times I have now read it, I was genuinely sorry it was over, sorry to shut the book and leave the characters behind.
And in twenty years of publishing fiction I have never had such a sense of a book building. UK Publication is still two months away, yet every day someone – an agent, an author, a bookseller, another publisher – emails me to ask for a proof or to tell me how devastated and moved they were by reading the novel. The only time anything like this has happened to me was when I was looking after Thomas Harris’s Hannibal many years ago. But that was ‘the long-waited new novel by the author of The Silence of the Lambs’!
I do hope you will want to read the book too. It is depressing, yet inevitable, that we constantly have to describe books in terms of other books to which they are similar. I just can’t do that with this one. And yet that is precisely what makes me so excited to be publishing it.
With all good wishes