Bru­tal history of abuse

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - James Bradley’s most re­cent novel is Clade.

en­gage with the to­tal­ity of his suf­fer­ing in a way that feels gen­uinely new and con­fronting.

Yet si­mul­ta­ne­ously there is some­thing slightly un­easy about A Lit­tle Life’s treat­ment of its sub­ject, a sense in which it is, if not quite ex­ploita­tive, then cer­tainly a lit­tle ma­nip­u­la­tive. The is­sue isn’t that the hor­rors in­flicted on Jude are so re­lent­less and ex­treme, although they are, it’s the con­trast be­tween the dis­lo­ca­tion and de­pri­va­tion of his child­hood and the glit­ter­ing, beau­ti­ful lives he and his friends build for them­selves in New York.

This con­trast gives rise to prac­ti­cal ques­tions (is it re­ally plau­si­ble a child treated the way Jude has been would be able to ex­cel the way he does?) but it also lends the deprav­ity Jude en­dures the same edge of fan­tasy that at­taches to the im­age of Willem and the oth­ers glid­ing from one glam­orous mo­ment to another.

More deeply, though, it’s dif­fi­cult not to feel the novel’s rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Jude’s suf­fer­ing oc­ca­sion­ally shades into a sort of kitsch, in which ex­trem­ity be­comes an end in it­self. Cer­tainly in the book’s fi­nal sec­tions, when Jude is pro­gres­sively bru­talised in new and ever more in­ven­tive ways, it feels less like keep­ing faith with the truth of his ex­pe­ri­ences and more like the sort of cos­mic cru­elty Thomas Hardy dishes out to his name­sake in Jude the Ob­scure.

In­ter­est­ingly — and I sus­pect sig­nif­i­cantly — a sim­i­lar sort of over­state­ment mars the fi­nal pages of The Peo­ple in the Trees, sug­gest­ing per­haps that this in­sis­tence we ex­pe­ri­ence the ex­trem­ity of suf­fer­ing in all its blank, un­pro­cess­able aw­ful­ness is in­te­gral to Yanag­i­hara’s fic­tional method. And while the reser­va­tions this over­state­ment en­gen­ders are more per­va­sive in A Lit­tle Life than in The Peo­ple in the Trees, they nonethe­less do not de­tract from the book’s larger sweep and com­plex­ity, its ab­sorb­ing strange­ness or, per­haps most im­por­tantly, the sheer am­bi­tion of its pro­ject.

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