Say what you will about Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life: it’s long, it’s depressing, the cover image is of an orgasmic man (a cover the author fought for), but undeniably, even after a few pages, you will settle in, secure in the hands of a master. Not least because Yanagihara is a writer who takes risks, which is what art is all about. Her first novel, The People in the Trees, had a Harvard trained scientist, based on a real character, as the protagonist. Are empathetic protagonists essential to engage the reader? Not for Yanagihara. This guy was a relentless pedophile who preyed on the children he adopted from a South Pacific island. That book was extraordinary, and you didn’t have to care for Dr. Norton Perina to be totally mesmerized by his story.

For this new novel, Yanagihara describes the unfolding relationships of four male friends who meet in college and come to New York City, each one finding success, each with a particular pedigree. Of the four, it is Jude--a foundling adopted by monks and horribly abused--who comes to the forefront. The book tackles friendship, race, homosexuality, love, loyalty, and suffering in an epic and profound story. Yanigaihara writes the unbearable; and she’s so good it’s unbearable.