The (Greatest) Book That Broke My Heart

18.02.19

To condense this book into a short summary is to do it a wild disservice. But, in the spirit of reviewing, I will try.

A Little Life, by American novelist Hanya Yanagihara, is an exploration of male friendship, the complexities of love, and the long-term consequences of childhood trauma. It spans the decades-long friendship of four friends who move to New York to pursue their careers. Willem is an aspiring actor, Malcolm is a struggling architect, JB is a painter trying to climb the ranks of the art world, and then there’s Jude. Jude. I can’t write about him without crying, but really all you need to know is that he is withdrawn, brilliant, beautiful, haunted and crippled. He is crippled and pain-ridden by an accident that you’ll spend much of the book speculating over. You should also know that you will fall in love with him. You might fall in love with Willem too (I did), or Malcolm (I didn’t). And you’ll change your mind about JB at least ten times.

A Little Life is a marathon. Where the average book on Kindle has a “typical time to read” of 3 or 4 hours, A Little Life suggests 15 hours and 29 minutes. Almost 800 pages. And I think it’s important to know that it’s a marathon from the outset because this theme of endurance will undercut so much of what happens in the story. Because even if it wasn’t 800 pages, even if it was an easily-digestible 200 or 300, there is no way you could read this book quickly. It demands so much of you emotionally, it will take you to the dark corners of your brain that you usually avoid visiting, the corners where death and trauma and fear hide out, which means you’ll find yourself needing time away from it more than once. More than once I had to stop, wipe my tears on my bedsheets or shirt sleeve and remind myself it isn’t real. This is fiction. He is okay. You are okay. 

The first time A Little Life breaks your heart, a mere 30 pages in, you’ll think this is it. This is the heartbreak people warned me about, and it’s not that bad. I can tolerate this. It won’t be until you endure the 8th or 9th break that you’ll look back on the first and see that it was only a sprain – a fracture at most. It seems that Hanya’s mission was to explore the limits of life-long friendship, to remind us of the sacrifices we make in the pursuit of holding on to those who know us best. Because when you’ve been friends for thirty years, as Willem, Jude, JB and Malcolm were, it means walking through the valleys of each others lives. It means you won’t always like each other, and at times you’ll wonder if you hate each other. JB did the one thing he promised Jude he would never do. And Jude did the one thing he promised Willem he would never do. But A Little Life reminds us why we so often forgive someone for doing the unforgivable – not because we’re stupid or weak – but because we’re smart enough to know that the time will come when we need that person to forgive us too. To tolerate the intolerable. Or, as Willem put it: “Friendship was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.”

Reading this book on the Kindle in my iPhone meant that I read it compulsively. I needed the book to end so that I had closure (while also acknowledging that Hanya had made no promises of closure at all). I read it lying on the floor in my house, sitting at the top of my stairs, standing in line for lunch, in the backseat of Ubers, at cafes waiting for friends. I kept reading while I stood up from my seat to go and close the door when the room got too cold – not wanting to sacrifice the thirty seconds it would take me to walk from here to there.

This book broke my heart in such a visceral way. I held my breath for the final ten pages, and when I finished the last sentence I stood up from my parents’ dining table, walked to my bedroom and cried into my duvet. That silent cry when your face scrunches and your mouth opens but your body is too shocked to make any sound. Which is why, I imagine, reading A Little Life is akin to what marathon runners feel when they cross the finish line. They think, what have I done. Was I insane. There is no way I could do that again. Endure that again. It hurts too much. But then they catch their breath, the endorphins hit, and when enough time has passed, they find themselves looking for the next race. Something that will stretch them, emotionally and physically.

Something worth the fracture. The break.


Header image by Holly Burgess for The Twenties Club