There has been a lot of hype about this book and it is favoured to win the Man Booker prize this year. The problem with hype is that expectations might be set too high. Man Booker contenders are not always highly readable, this one is, in the sense that the story is not difficult to follow and is strangely compelling given the subject matter. This is a heavy book, both in size and content. In my opinion, the power of the book was slightly diminished by its length (700+ pages); I think it could have been improved by some tightening up.
It is a difficult book to describe or to recommend because it is an intimate story that is best discovered by the reader, without any preconceived notions. However, in this case that is impossible. Despite its value, this book must come with a warning because parts of it are harrowing. With a focus on individual suffering, abuse, and self-harm, some may find this book too difficult to read. If it wins the Man Booker, it will be because of the experiential emotional impact the author has crafted. Yanagihara doesn’t shy away from brutality but she also doesn’t exploit–there is nothing gratuitous and everything is there for a reason. I especially appreciated realizing why people who are abused might go on to harm themselves.
The story line is rather unremarkable at first. Four bright students in the 90’s are beginning their professional lives. They have known each other through college and now they are trying to make their way in the ‘real’ world, buoyed by their friendship. Willem is an actor, Jude is a lawyer, Malcolm is an architect, and JB is an artist. But as the novel progresses, Jude emerges as the one who is a bit different. There seem to be things in his past that he is suffering from. His friends have a sense for this; they sensitively make quiet accommodation for his pain. And as the novel progresses we learn through flashbacks about Jude and his ‘little life’ we see in sharp contrast the difference between love and un-love. Incredibly well drawn, Jude is a character I will not soon forget. Incidentally, St. Jude the apostle is the patron saint of lost causes.
As with The People in the Trees, Yanagihara gently and deftly deals with dark and disturbing matters as she delivers in equal proportion both horror and beauty. There is a fairy tale quality to her writing which seems to soften the emotional devastation, and in both books, abuse is the subject. In People in the Trees the focus is on the perpetrator and in this novel, the victim is front and centre. This is an important book for those who have been affected by abuse. Abuse has the power to distort how people see the world and affects how they behave. I do hope that this novel has the power to bring healing and understanding to those who have experienced suffering at the hands others. There is a lot of love, loyalty and true friendship in this book as well.