Book Review: A Little Life // Hanya Yanagihara

It’s almost one month since I started reading A Little Life, the Man Booker Prize finalist by Hanya Yanagihara published in 2015. Prior to this, my lockdown reading had been speedy – almost frantic – as I tried to consume as much as I could in this unprecedented pause, and to escape the unpleasant truth of the world unfolding on the news.


A Little Life tracks the rises and falls of four friends in New York City. The novel opens soon after their graduation from an unnamed (but prestigious) university in New England, and the beginning of the friends’ adulthoods and careers. As the novel progresses, though, we get closer and closer to Jude, who becomes our protagonist. A Little Life spans Jude’s entire life, beginning in these early college days and ending with his death as many bildungsroman (coming-of-age) novels do.


Yanagihara sets her novel apart in her masterfully zig-zagging timeline: we’re moved between people, dipping in and out of their lives; we’re moved between years, collecting details from the past that inform the future, and vice versa. We become inextricably entangled, and by the end I found myself reminiscing on the beginning along with the characters. I was fully absorbed, and – laughing when the characters laughed, crying when they cried – I ultimately realised the stakes were as high for me as they were for the characters.


A Little Life is a book about art and creativity, aspiration and achievement, family and friendship, and identity and discovery. These four friends are all from starkly different backgrounds, and they navigate their new lives in New York city just as they navigate each other. They talk about films and paintings – and, indeed, create them – and these boys luxuriate in their shared passions and new discoveries. They’re there for each other’s successes, for the everyday, for the low points. It’s a novel about friendship that turns into family.


I always knew it would take me longer to read A Little Life; at 814 pages, it is a behemoth, and it’s normally pretty tricky to hold my attention for that long. However, as soon as I started reading, another part of me knew it would take longer than normal to read because of its content.


A Little Life requires a lot of content warnings – perhaps more than any novel I’ve
ever read. Sexual abuse, child abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, gaslighting,
ableism, drug-abuse, addiction, kidnapping, self-harm, suicide, grief. Most of
these are not just mentioned in passing. Notoriously candid in its graphic
descriptions and heart-rending events, Yanagihara is bold in how much she dares
to address in just one novel, and how explicitly.


Listing all of these potentially triggering topics reminds me just how difficult a novel A Little Life really is. I had to put it down multiple times, both to recover and to also give myself time to process what I had just read. I needed to give space to
the trauma I had just read about.


This morning, I finally finished reading A Little Life. Last night, I left myself around 30 pages to read the next day, wanting to be more awake when I finally reached this masterpiece’s conclusion. It was a tearful struggle; I didn’t want to reach the end that had become so inevitable. I had to wipe my eyes throughout the final chapter, just as I’d had to wipe my eyes countless times over the course of the
book.


It’s haunting and graphic, but I maintain that A Little Life is a masterpiece. It’s
difficult, but it’s also eye-opening. You should read it if you can.

Words by Olivia Emily

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