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  • William Lewallen

A Little Life: Embers from Ashes

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Spoilers ahead!

The translation of art across mediums is a tricky process, whether you are moving from paper pages to a stage production or television to film, something is always going to be lost; but similarly, something will also be gained. Ivo van Hove’s anticipated theatre adaption of Hanya Yanagihara’s award winning 2015 novel ‘A Little Life’ is no different.

The novel, weighing in at over 700 pages, charts four friends as they move to New York after college and weaves the complexities of friendship, romance and tragedy as the quadlet navigates the traumas of the protagonist, Jude St-Francis’s, past. Yanagihara writes in her introduction to the script, “the play is also a ghost story” with Jude haunted both by figures from his past and by spectres of the life he might have led.

Hove’s interpretation has divided critics, with some praising the bravery of James Norton in the lead role whilst the Financial Times described it as “a relentless pile of pain and physical suffering.” With a novel of such length and complexity, some details are bound to be lost, but I believe the core message remains intact: even the most unimaginable trauma can birth seeds of love and hope.

The directorial choice to tell the story through haunting figures sees much of the dialogue and nuances lost; where the book revisits the past and walks the reader through it, the audience of the play have these details handed to them somewhat more bluntly. Jude confides in his best friend and lover Willem about his former abuser: “The truth is he is in everything I do; in everything I am there is Brother Luke. My love of reading, of music, of math, of languages, of gardening, of cooking. He gave me all those things; all those things are his.”

The decision admittedly sees some characters, such as Malcolm, one of Jude’s friends and an aspiring architect, somewhat relegated. Much of what has made the book such a modern classic is its ability to take a deep dive into the lives’ of periphery characters, the fact that the play loses this is a shame but not grounds for a strong critique. Van Hove had to be brave in his decisions; to attempt to replicate the book too closely would have been cowardly. Whilst we lose some of this contextualisation, it successfully captures the trauma of Jude’s life. Preti Taneja in her book Aftermath defines trauma as not the thing itself but the repetition of the event, in this case Jude’s horrific abuse. Even when Jude is promised a house in the forest with Willem, he is haunted by the fact that Brother Luke made him the same vow all those years ago.

Whilst Malcolm takes a less prominent role in the stage version, he delivers a key inflection point in the story. Speaking to Jude about the house he has built him and Willem he pleads, “you have to stop seeing these benches as reminders of what you can’t do. Like how I saw them, you and Willem stop at the second bench, see, it offers a direct view of the house across the water.”

“You just don’t have enough imagination when it comes to your own life”

This reimagining of perspective is a central motif of the story, but crucially, contrary to contemporary, individualised self-help narratives this cannot be done alone. Taneja reminds us that ‘trauma cannot be survived in the first person singular’ and we see Jude realise this: “People kept entering my life, bequeathing me with generosities. It’s as if life wasn’t just making up for those first 15 years but was begging for my forgiveness.” Highlighting the necessity of community Jude continues but on “one condition, I had to trust.”

Jude – What are we going to do?

Willem – I don’t know but we will figure it out, I promise we will

Together? Yes, together.

Jude for the first time in his life learns to trust and open up but the central tragedy of the book is only just beginning. After this, Willem dies in a car crash and Jude then decides to take his own life. Alice Saville writing for The Independent says that Yanagihara’s perspective seems to be that suicide is the only way out. Though no one wills such a path on anyone, one can neither deny that this is a reality for many people.

Saville goes on to say that this narrative is an “irresponsible” and “false” message, for real-life suffering is interspersed with “moments of joy and care.” I think it is naive and frankly false to assume such positive moments come naturally coupled ineffable tragedies. Anyone who has experienced a loss of a sufficient magnitude will testify to the immediate aftermath of grief snuffing out any flickers of hope. Embers of love do exist in the wreckage, but they must be excavated with care, compassion and as part of community.

Death is both so immensely final and simultaneously never ending. Those who outlive loved ones carry their loss with them for the rest of their lives. Taneja again: “This is a lament after the fact of violence. For we all continue to lose.” One can either relive the pain over and over, Taneja’s definition of trauma, or we can reimagine our perspective.

Midway through the story Jude is adopted by one of his old professors Harold who had already lost a son of his own. The play ends with Harold reading Jude’s suicide note in which he details the abuse he suffered as a child; Harold grieves not only for the loss of his de facto second child but for his own failures as a parent and the horrors Jude endured and never shared.

This final trauma no doubt constitutes an unbearable pile of heartbreak and coming after three and a half hours of acting it is tough to take. The stage adaptation of A Little Life is an acquired taste and is admittedly a lot, but then again so is the book. As I left the Harold Pinter theatre in London, I was emotionally drained, barely able to follow a conversation at a friend’s barbeque that evening. Though unpleasant, art is there to affect.

Replaying the ending one thing sticks out: despite having lost everything Harold makes the choice to reimagine his position as one of forward-looking radical hope. “Maybe he is that flower that suddenly blooms on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago. Maybe he is that cloud, that mist, that rain. […] And so I try to be kind to everything I see. And in everything I see, I see him.”


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