One of the things I love most about this world is that there always has been, and always will be, the opportunity to discover more. From grand adventures to scientific breakthroughs…all the way down to discovering a book that changes your life.
That’s what happened last month. I was coming home from work, and on the escalator at Archway station there was a poster for Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life. It didn’t say what the book was about. It didn’t give anything away. It just had the title and a couple of one or two word reviews. The only one I remember was simply the word astonishing. But that was enough for me. I love books and I love getting new books (my to-be-read pile never seems to go down because I just keep adding to it, woops) so I was straight on Amazon ordering it for myself.
The next day it arrived and that was the day it all changed. Sounds dramatic I know, but it’s true. Sometimes books just speak to you. Sometimes, like this time, they absolutely destroy you to your core.
I’ve spoken before about books that are so incomprehensible to my life but somehow have an incredible impact. And this book fits in that category.
We follow four friends – Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem – through their lives together in New York . Throughout the 800 or so pages, the story bounces between our protagonists, and we get little inflects in to who makes them who they are. There is, however, a greater focus on one of the boys. Jude St Francis. His life is heart wrenching, heart breaking, yet hope lingers there and gives us all something to live for. His life is something that even in the deepest pits of my imagination I couldn’t even imagine. But it connected with me on such deep levels that I’m sitting here now, having finished it, not knowing quite what to do with myself.
[note: I’m going to suggest everyone reads this book, and I don’t want to give much away from the plot, if at all, but I will say some of the issues it deals with are quite heavy (abuse/self harm) so if that is something that is difficult for you to to read, you may want to avoid it]
I don’t want to go into specifics of the plot. I don’t want to give anything away. Because I want everyone who does read it to go in blind, as I did, and be just as compelled. I will however, give you three things that reading A Little Life solidified for me, in my own life.
1. Friendships are wonderful, beautiful, extraordinary things
When you really think about it, having friends is bloody amazing. They’re people – strangers! – who appear in your life at some point, and then stay there. You become friends with people for a billion different reasons. And then you become close. And then before you know it, they’re an incredible part of who you are and what you know. Some friendships span lifetimes, some just a fleck in the grand scheme of things. But they’re all as precious as each other. Because being friends with someone is giving a part of yourself to someone else. It’s allowing yourself to be vulnerable. To be open. To give yourself over to adventure. And there ain’t nothin cooler than that. In A Little Life we see friendships blossom, we see friendships struggle through tensions and we see friendships become family. It’s beautiful. And magical. And something to really cherish.
2. Everyone has their limit
Sometimes, things on the outside are not necessarily the same as on the inside. And every individual person has their own way of dealing/coping/putting up with things. This goes for everything from work to play to sex to love. We have to be patient with the people we’re close to and the way in which they are programmed. Everyone has a limit. Some people don’t mind you touching their hand, but will flinch like hell if you try and hug them. Some people are awesome at working under pressure, but won’t be able to handle a quiet day. And other people absolutely cannot stand being pressured into small talk. Trying our best to register and apply people’s limits to how we behave around them will ultimately make lives better. In A Little Life this is one of Jude’s greatest complications (in his own mind). The life he has led means that his perception of other people and the way he interacts with people is hindered greatly. His limits start where most people are already comfortable, are already “natural”. But it’s the support group around him, filled with unconditional love, that take his limits and apply them to their own lives as best they can.
3. If you don’t understand, don’t walk away
This runs on from my previous point quite nicely. Being patient with people is so important. Taking time to learn, to accept, to understand, even more so. And it’s not just with people. Everyone has the fight or flight instinct built in to them. Maybe you’re tearing your hair out at work because the project you’re on is difficult and you would rather just quit. Maybe you’re having a conversation with someone whose beliefs or perspectives are entirely different to you and fly over your head so you think it’s pointless to even carry on. Or maybe you’re just trying to do your taxes (ugh). Whatever it is, it seems so easy and simple to either not pay attention, or just walk away from things that you don’t understand on the first go. But the benefits of being patient, of asking questions, of sticking with it/them are tantamount to excellence, and it’s worth persevering. Learning is one of the greatest gifts we get in life and one we should endeavour to do at every opportunity. Filling our brains with knowledge is incredible. Willem, Jude, Malcolm and JB all test this in their friendship. The fight or flight instinct is present on many levels and many instances. But ultimately, they fight. In their own ways and the best they can. Because they know that what they share between them is something special.
I’m sitting here still kind of mind blown with this book. And I know I could write so much more about what it has given me. But I’d be giving too much of the plot away if I were to and I can’t bring myself to do that.
I just urge you all to go and buy it and read it for yourself. You will laugh. You will sob uncontrollably. You will appreciate the value of relationships. And, in the end, I can only hope you’ll gain a new perspective on this crazy little thing we call life.