A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This. Book. Ruined. Me. It’s notorious for how how devastating it is, how hatefully sad it is, for how every time it brings you up it slams you back down with twice the venom. It leaves you exhausted, traumatised, and betrayed by the untrustworthy nature of Yanagihara’s writing.
A Little Life follows the lives of four friends in New York City from college, through to middle age. It focuses particularly on Jude, a lawyer with a mysterious past and unexplained health issues. As more of Jude’s childhood is uncovered, those who love him are forced to struggle with the reoccurring consequences.
While they’re often most talked about in the bookish world, for me, the tortuously sad parts aren’t what make it so extraordinary. It shows the power of friendship, and how it evolves as the four friends age, enduring challenges on the way. Its incredible to see the characters develop, both in themselves and as a group. Seeing them struggle together within their careers, with JB’s drug addiction, and most importantly, with Jude’s unspeakably abusive childhood, leads their joint stories through a path crafted with conversations of race, gender and sexuality.
I also loved how Jude’s brutal past was weaved into the story. It was expertly layered into the present-day narrative, and its genius formatting added a lot of depth to the occurring events, often making them even more harrowing.
The prose, naturally, was brilliant. Without Hanya Yanagihara’s ability to string you along there is no way this would be such a successful 700+ page novel. It also links to what I said previously, about how Jude’s abuse was layered into the present. In the beginning, enough of Jude’s childhood trauma was implied to get you curious enough to read on, and then as more and more is revealed, you find yourself hooked.
To match all of its positives however, A Little Life, unfortunately, has endless negatives. There were many things I didn’t like about this book, for one, it is almost completely unbelievable. All stories demand a certain level of disbelief, but this simply took it too far. The novel lacks so much in terms of the setting and portrayal of the actual world. Its in its own little bubble. So much texture could have been added if actual, real life events occurred. Considering its time frame and setting, I’m shocked there was no reference to 9/11, or any other event that realistically could have added a lot of turbulence to their lives. It feels as if its just a hovering place, like a lone puzzle piece. No matter how many places they travel to- Paris for the weekend, London for Thanksgiving- nothing is impacted by the real world. It wasn’t a huge downfall for me, but it removed some of the clarity and realism of the story.
A bigger issue for me were the characters. While its cast were distinctive and many of them will stick with me forever, they had no dimension. They were either all good, or all bad. A clean line can separate the characters into these two categories. Its just not realistic. We all sit somewhere on the line between, and the sharp and obvious contrast bothered me throughout, making a lot of the characters not feel authentic. In the bad category, there is paedophiles, manipulative psychopaths, rapists, religious abusers, and in the good, we have, well, everyone else. The only character the shifts between is JB, but his character, while more realistic in terms of behaviour, was one of the most unrealistic in other elements, most prominently his career.
I could list endless things that make this novel unrealistic, and it all just comes together to make you feel as if its all structured around Jude. It feels as if everything was created to cause Jude some kind of differing pain. This book is written to make you cry. There is no secret about it, and for the most part, it is successful. I’m okay with books manipulating my emotions, but when it feels like the sole purpose- that’s when I have an issue.
In conclusion, in no way at all did I hate this book. If anything, its one of the best books I’ve ever read, just because of the universal, shocking impact it has. However, in no way was it flawless, and I did have quite a lot of problems with it. I think its something everyone should read. Whether you love it or hate it , in the end, its not something you’ll regret.