Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

One of my favourite reads ever - A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Note: potential spoilers ahead. Also, trigger warning for physical, sexual abuse and self-harm.

A Little Life is one of the most heartbreaking books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a fair number of them. The husband was away the weekend that I was racing through the last one-third of the book. I kept texting him from time to time telling him how sad the book was and how it made me all weepy. His response was: “If it makes you so sad, why are you still reading it?” 

Well, because I couldn’t stop. And it may be sad, but isn’t that one of the primary qualities of literature – to transport you to places and into lives in ways that you cannot even think is possible? And also because it’s probably one of the best things I’ve read this year.

If you haven’t already heard about “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara, it’s essentially a story about four grown men settling down in New York after college and how their lives and friendship shapes up and stands the test of time. It’s not so much driven by a specific plot event, but rather traces the intertwined journey of these four men over the decades.

It starts off by alternating the point of view among the four friends. You get their back stories, you get a sense of their ambitions. What you don’t get initially is the real truth about Jude St. Francis and his past – you only know that his past was dark, a place he does not like to revisit, but cannot quite let go either.

The four friends go on to become successful in their chosen field (JB as a represented artist, Malcolm as an award-winning architect, Willem as an un-boxable actor, and Jude as a lawyer). Somewhere along the way, the other point of views fade away and you are left with Jude as the central character, alternated mostly by Willem, and sometimes Harold (one of Jude’s law professors who forms an endearing relationship with him).

Told through flashbacks, the unraveling of Jude’s past till the age of 15 is extremely painful to read. There is abuse in multitudes – physical, sexual, emotional, of power, of trust. It does not make for easy reading, and there is no letting up of the torment that Jude goes through, well into adulthood.

Jude is so damaged that even while his life turns around in his adulthood, even when his adult life is so significantly and so blissfully the opposite of that of his childhood (save for one abusive adult relationship), he cannot truly accept that he deserves better.

“But now he knows for certain how true the axiom is, because he himself – his very life – has proven it. The person I was will always be the person I am, he realizes. The context may have changed: he may be in this apartment, and he may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have parents and friends he loves. He may be respected; in court, he may even be feared. But, fundamentally, he is the same person, a person who inspires disgust, a person meant to be hated.”

Hanya Yanagihara’s writing is fluent, absorbing without being too highbrow. There is no fancy prose, no flowery language, no unnecessary detailing. Instead, it’s brutal, and straight to the point. And most importantly, it had me hooked. There were times when I had to put down the book because it was too painful to read, but I went back to it soon enough because I couldn’t really keep away for too long.

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

There is some redemption, some happy bits in Jude’s story – the parents he finds and love that he experiences late in life – but it’s not enough in the end. I cried, oh yes I did, for the kind of suffering that Jude had to endure as a child.

But what truly turned on the waterworks for me the depiction of some of the most tender and honest moments in the book (two instances particularly come to mind – the time when Jude finally breaks down and tells Willem his story, and the time when Harold and Julia parent a 51-year-old Jude into eating a sandwich).

Certain aspects of the story seem like oversimplifications – all four friends being not just successful, but famous, in their chosen lines of work; the centrality of Jude in the lives of all his adult friends throughout their adult lives – and yet, you find yourself ignoring these and rooting for Jude and for some sunshine for him, even when you know that it is unlikely that the story has a happy ending.

A Little Life is being touted as the “great gay novel” in certain circles, but I think it goes way beyond that. It’s a story about men, and their relationships (which is why the lack of prominent female characters, except for Ana and Julia, does not seem particularly grating to me).

But most essentially, it’s a story about friendship, and about love. Not necessarily young, lustful love that makes you weak in the knees, but love that endures and sustains through unspeakable truths and horrors, and love that makes life better just by being so.

“The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are – not smarter, not cooler, not kinder, but more generous, and more forgiving – and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad – or good – it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”

Have you read A Little Life? I’d love to hear your thoughts if you have. And if you haven’t, I would really recommend that you give it a shot.

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One of my favourite reads ever - A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
One of my favourite reads ever - A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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