By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Hanya Yanagihara
Narration by: Oliver Wyman
“A Little Life” is about the difference between coping and overcoming. Hanya Yanagihara writes of a boy growing to manhood. Though the story is about a boy, it is a universal and gender-less story about child abuse. Yanagihara draws one into a story like John Irving lures one into “A Prayer for Owen Meany”. One feels captured in a quicksand of feeling and thought about an enigmatic character. Yanagihara creates Jude, an extraordinarily handsome, sociable, and intelligent man who secretly mutilates unseen parts of his own body.
The story drags a listener’s thoughts into a dark place. Why is this extraordinary person cutting himself with razor blades? Why does this character shun intimacy? Why does this person who knows so much discount his ability? The reader turns a page; the listener listens to the next paragraph; needing to know the answer. Yanagihara slowly develops a back story that explains something about human nature and why one chooses to punish one’s self, avoid sex, and apologize for everything he knows.
Jude is an abused child, raised in an orphanage run by priests. At 8 years of age, Jude is seduced by a pedophile, a felon who parades as a priest. His name is Father Luke. This false man-of-God kidnaps Jude and pimps him out as a prostitute while making him believe he loves him and protects him from harm.
Yanagihara’s horrific story is revealed in flashbacks as Jude grows into a successful career as a lawyer. One begins to feel this is a story about many lost boys and girls abused by adults. It is an abuse founded on betrayal of purported guardians’ trust; with exploitative adult motives. But, Yanagihara offers more.
Most children suffer from remembrance of things past. Every life copes with intentional, unintentional, true, and false hurts from childhood. Yanagihara fictionalizes a person’s life story to show how extreme those hurts can be. She offers slender hope for a cast line that will rescue an abused child from the quicksand of sinking despair. The slenderness of hope is inferred by the extra-ordinariness of Jude, a brilliant, handsome, and socially apt young adult who attracts many friends. Without those innate characteristics, a grossly abused child is more likely to wither and die than become a financially successful corporate attorney.
Yanagihara’s story defines the difference between coping and overcoming life’s hardships. Yanagihara infers most of life is coping with hardship rather than overcoming real or imagined hurt. Friends, lovers, psychiatrists, and physicians help the traumatized cope with real and imagined hurts, but overcoming depends on the mind of the traumatized.
A criticism of “A Little Life” is that it is too long. It offers revelation but its insight is too long in the making. A most over-used phrase in “A Little Life” is “I am sorry”, a refrain that becomes cloying by the end of the story. What Yanagihara makes blindingly clear is the ugly truth of pedophilia and how it scars children for life. This is a story that needs to be told and understood, but not in so many words. For that criticism of Yanagihara’s book, “I am sorry”.