Writing has always been a way for me to process the way I feel. I started my first journal at 7 years old and keep one to this day. I wouldn’t say that my journals represent my best writing or anything I would ever want anyone to read but I always feel better after writing.
It’s in that spirit that I decided to write here to try and process through my feelings on the latest book I’ve read because it continues to haunt my thoughts. If you are a reader, there’s a good chance you’ve come across A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, released last year. (Note: I’m going to try my best to not reveal serious spoilers about this book but if you are sensitive to these sorts of things and want to read the book, maybe you should skip this post).
A Little Life was critically well received, being short listed for the Man Booker Prize and a National Book Award Finalist. It’s a story about 4 young men who are close friends and recent college graduates that move to New York City, telling the story of their lives. It’s clear from a quick glance at the back cover that this book isn’t a typical tale of friendship, it is about trauma and abuse. You go in knowing that you are about to read about a subject that is painful. And yet, even with warning, I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly awful this book made me feel. It is not a short read at over 700 pages and it feels like nearly every bit of it is full of anguish. I cried so many times reading this book I lost count. I know I said before that sometimes cry reads are good but honestly, this one hurt.
The abuse in this book is revealed slowly through flashbacks to the main characters childhood. There are moments of a normal story of coming of age in New York (something I clearly can relate to) but in the corner are these allusions to abuse, like a big, scary gorilla, waiting to be released. When the abuse is first revealed, I sobbed tears of outrage, as if there was an idea of “fairness” that wasn’t being followed. Because in my sheltered life experience, all children are precious and protected. It really wasn’t fair. It went beyond fair, it wasn’t fathomable. I wanted to believe that this is something that would not really happen to anyone. And while I sincerely hope it is impossible for that many different kinds of abuse to happen to one person, I know it depicts abuse that is a reality for children across the world.
By the end of the book, my tears flowed silently, the rage I felt was gone. Much like the character, it seemed to me that the abuse was inescapable. It didn’t matter how accomplished he became, how many friends he had or what kind of support system was around him. None of that could erase the abuse that he experienced and the power it held over him.
And of course, there were times when I was so frustrated with him (and I felt guilty about). Why couldn’t he see that he had people who loved and cared about him now? Why did he let himself believe the things his abusers said while being deaf to the love that was around him? Why didn’t he see that hurting himself hurt others? Why did he refuse therapy for so long? I don’t know. But, the thing is, I really don’t have any context for relating to him. The atrocities he experienced are the kind that you don’t want to understand because the only way you could would be through experience.
The Texan watched me read this book and at times questioned why I kept going if it was making me so sad. I think it helped that I was reading it with my best friend. I honestly don’t know if I could have read this book alone. At the very least it helped to get texts from her that reflected the same feelings I had: oh this book. It’s so sad. How do we even talk about it? I think what makes this book extra sad is there really isn’t any hope. The author isn’t following the script we are all used to where things eventually get better. The hits just keep coming.
When I finished it, he asked me if it was a good book. I said yes, but also no. It is an incredibly well-written book. So much of it is just beautiful writing. It is also so painful, I’m not sure I would subject myself to it again. But, maybe everyone should read it, just once. Maybe instead of turning away from this sort of thing we should try to understand because maybe it’s not about us. Maybe it’s for them. For who they represent, for the pain that is all too real for too many. And maybe not all books are to be read for the escapism they provide, maybe some books are meant to provoke, to haunt you, to make you think differently about the world. Days later, I can’t stop thinking about it and I also don’t want to think about it. Maybe that’s a sign that it is a worthwhile read after all.