A short summary.
Once in a blue moon, you come across a ming boggling, life-altering, standard-setting doing of art. And personally, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara simply and overwhelmingly took over my idea of a great piece of literature.
Back story — When I came across this book completely at random, I was perplexed by the number of intense reviews and a list of trigger warnings it had. I strongly recommend you go through the list before reading it.
Warning: Contains Spoilers
In the first chapter of the novel, we are introduced to four friends who just graduated from college, namely: Jude St. Francis, Jean-Baptise(JB) Marion, Willem Ragnarsson, and Malcolm Irvine. (I already want to read it again).
The four of them were pretty close. And like any other group of friends, their backgrounds, past life, hobbies, and stuff of that sort were discussed. Each with their own stories and expressions, except for Jude. Jude is somewhat of a ghost. He never opens up about his past, his family, or anything to any one of his friends. No matter how hard they tried, he never cracked.
Jude and Willem share an apartment in NYC. It is here where we are shown a glimpse of Jude’s troubled self as he claims he “accidentally” hurt himself and demands Willem takes him to see Andy.
Andy is the person who knows a bit about Jude’s past (relative to the others), he is a doctor, and the only doctor Jude will ever agree to see. It has been like that for a long time, because this way Jude doesn’t have to explain his cuts, his bruises, and pain to a complete stranger over and over again, and Andy understood.
Jude was later adopted by Harold, his college professor, at age 30, and grew extremely close to him throughout the story.
The habitual cutting of Jude continues throughout the book. We learn that he does this to sort of overtake his emotional pain by the physical pain. No matter how much he was loved by his circle, Jude never taught of himself as deserving of love. In the fourth chapter, Jude finds himself in an abusive relationship with a man named Caleb. Caleb treats Jude exactly how he thinks of himself, as a worthless unlovable cripple who deserves everything that had happened to him. Things escalated to a point where Jude was painfully beaten and hospitalized. To Jude, this was a painful event that triggered his trauma and unleashed the beasts he had worked all his life to bury deep in his mind. All the memories, the pain, the torture, the worthlessness, started to work against him. He attempts suicide but was found in his bathtub before it was too late.
As far as his past was revealed, he was found abandoned by his parents near a garbage can, and found by Brothers of a monastery. He grew up in that monastery, and everything he knew of himself, he was told by the Brothers. They tolerated him, immensely punished him for the smallest mistakes, and sexually abused him until he lost count. In all of this chaos, there was one brother Jude trusted, Brother Luke, as he had shown him affection and told him he didn’t deserve any of the things the others were doing to him. Told him he loved him and they would one day fled and live in a cabin together, a happily ever after. And they did, they escaped the monastery. But it isn’t long after their journey to freedom that Brother Luke breaks the news to Jude that he no longer has the financial ability to buy the cabin he promised, and begins to bring male clients to sleep with Jude for money (roughly every night). This went on for years, and it is here he was taught to cut himself, by none other than Brother Luke, to wave off the pain and feel alive again.
At some point in this miserable life, Brother Luke gets arrested for child molestation. Jude, being below 18, goes into an orphanage where he is yet again abused. He escapes, and lands in the hands of a man named Doctor Taylor, where he is locked in a basement, and further abused. He later ends up being chased and run over by a truck by the man while on his way to escape, leaving him with permanent damage to his legs and spine.
In the fifth chapter, Willem takes a romantic interest in Jude. After all, he has been the closest to him, he was his guardian, his defender against all that has come to manipulate Jude, and loved him maybe more than life itself. Jude agrees to give the relationship a try. He initially was very hesitant, but he later gave in. Jude found a home with Willem, he trusted him with his life, and they became a unit.
In the sixth chapter, Willem dies in a car crash along with Malcolm and his wife. The grief takes a toll on Jude’s mental and physical health. His anger overtook him, he was lost in his emotions. Despite the love and support he found with Harold, he never seemed to recover.
The last chapter reads a letter written and narrated by Harold (to Willem) about the unfortunate event of Jude’s suicide. Harold reveals that Jude was never the same since he lost Willem. He had feared this would happen someday, no matter how we tried to protect Jude, how much he tried to make long-term plans with him, Jude was just lost.
Harold later finds a letter inside a shelf, written and purposefully hidden by Jude. On it was everything he had ever wanted to know about Jude, his past, his story, his identity.