A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

Back in May I spent a bank holiday weekend in tears. That is because I spent the three day break (which I still don’t understand why we have several times a year, yet obviously embrace) reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Though saying that you read a book like A Little Life I actually think does it a disservice as it is one of those all encompassing books that you live through. It is rare that a book as it ends leaves you feeling a somewhat changed person to the one who started it, that is what happened to me and is probably why this will be one of my all time reads.

Picador Books, 2015, hardback, fiction, 736 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

A Little Life is one of those books that slightly fool you from the start. As it opens it seems to be the tale of four men who become friends in college, we watch as they struggle (well three of them do) to make successful lives in New York; Willem as an actor, JB as a photographer, Malcolm as an architect and Jude as a lawyer.  Initially the novel traces how the four men meet, how their friendship develops and then how their lives and careers in the big smoke unfold. If you are thinking ‘oh right, it is another of those New York novels about successful men’ whilst rolling your eyes, you would be wrong as Yanagihara weaves in various question marks about all of these men and the darker parts of their personalities and pasts, particularly into the unknown and almost mysterious psyche of Jude who never gives anything away, not even snippets, of his youth.

His feelings for Jude were complicated. He loved him – that part was simple – and feared for him, and sometimes felt as much his older brother and protector as his friend. He knew that Jude would be and had been fine without him, but he sometimes saw things in Jude that disturbed him and made him feel both helpless and, paradoxically, more determined to help him (although Jude rarely asked for help of any kind.) They all loved Jude, and admired him, but he often felt that Jude had let him see a little more of him – just a little – than he had shown the others, and he was unsure what he was supposed to do with that knowledge.

It is Jude who fairly soon becomes the focus as the novel and it is here that A Little Life starts to take its, now infamous, darker turns. Without giving too much away, and I think it has been discussed quite a lot all over the shop, we look into his background, the horrendous abuse that he endured and the physical and mental scars it has left and which he is still dealing with now. How does someone cope with having been abandoned and then physically and sexually abused? How does someone make a success of their lives after that? How do they survive? These are some of the many questions that Yanagihara asks and some of the answers are not comfortable ones. For example in order to escape the almost constant pain, Jude often (to the horror of those who know about it; Willem, Jude’s physician Andy and his mentor Harold) uses the release of self harm. Yes it makes for disturbing reading, yet I have never understood the psychology behind it before as I have reading this.

Jude shrugged, and Willem felt his annoyance quicken into anger. Here Jude sat after what was, he could now admit, a terrifying night, acting as if nothing had happened, even as his bandage-wrapped hand lay uselessly on the table. He was about to speak when Jude put down the water glass he’d been using as a pastry cutter and looked at him. “I’m really sorry, Willem,” he said, so softly that Willem almost couldn’t hear him. He saw Willem looking at his hand and pulled it into his lap. “I should never -” He paused. “I’m sorry. Don’t be mad at me.”

Yet this is one of the things that Yanagihara seems to want to look at. Her writing, whilst admittedly (and she has said intentionally) making everything a little extreme, has an honesty about the things we like to talk about and also the things that we don’t which I found impressive and often heartbreaking because we have all felt or thought these things. “I’m lonely,” he says aloud, and the silence of the apartment absorbs the words like blood soaking into cotton. And there is so much Yanagihara looks at; pleasure vs. pain, success vs. failure, love vs. hate. She also looks at how society has expectations for us from birth; we should all be able to endure anything, we should all want success and riches, we should all have the best relationships possible of all kinds, we should all love sex, we should be grateful to be alive, we should all be survivors. But what if we don’t, are we failures, and are we not truly ‘human’ if we are not conventional in all ways? I could talk about the thoughts and questions A Little Life gave me for days and days.

If you are thinking that this sounds like the most miserable, upsetting, confronting and disturbing novel you are going to read, you would be wrong. Yes there are a lot of moments where it will leave you bereft and broken; however it is also a novel of incredible hope, especially in the testament of friendship and the power of love. I cried as many times through happiness as I did sadness, I laughed as much as I gasped or winced in horror. In some ways there is a fairy tale like quality to A Little Life both in its sense of timelessness, the way it has it’s goodies (Willem is now my idea of a contemporary Prince Charming if ever there was one) and baddies (Caleb and Brother Luke will make your skin crawl) and also in its believe in the goodness of many over the wickedness of some and the power/magic there is in love in all its forms.

“All I want,” he’d said to Jude one night, trying to explain the satisfaction that at that moment was burbling inside him, like water in a bright blue kettle, “is work I enjoy, and a place to live, and someone who loves me. See? Simple.”

Someone asked me the other day, after I had recommended that they read it, why on earth it had to be so long? Good question, why couldn’t Yanagihara have made it 500 or even 350 pages long instead of over 700? My answer is simply that you have to get completely immersed into these lives in order for the book to have the incredible emotive, happy and sad, effects that it does. By the end of the novel you will feel you have made friends and lost them, you will have felt like you have endured their happiness and their pain, you will feel you have lived a little of other people’s lives and been subconsciously made to reflect on your own.

I am going to urge everyone I know to read A Little Life. It is a novel that looks at love, friendship, loss, pleasure, pain, hope, survival, failure and success. It is a book about class, disability, sexuality and race. Overall it is a book about what it means to be a human. It’s amazing, it is also brutal. Like I said back at the beginning of this post, A Little Life is not just a book you read through, it is a book that you experience and live through. Without a doubt this will be my book of the year, if not my book of the decade, something about it (and Jude and Willem) will stay with me for many, many years to come. I am changed a little, something only the rarest and most moving and thought provoking books can do. Get it, read it, then talk to me about it.

If you would like to hear more about A Little Life from Hanya Yanagihara, you can hear her in conversation with me on the latest You Wrote The Book. If you have read A Little Life I would love to know and hear your thoughts on it and the affects it had on you, whatever they were. I think it’s clear this is a book I could talk about all day, this review took fifteen edits, I kid you not! I would also love to know if any of you have read Hanya’s debut The People in the Tree’s which I have and want to read right now and yet want to save, as it may be a while before we get the next Yanagihara novel.

22 Comments

Filed under Books of 2015, Hanya Yanagihara, Picador Books, Review

22 responses to “A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

  1. I so completely agree with this review. i had the same reaction when I read it in March and just can’t imagine any other book making me question that this will be my best read of this year and of many years.

  2. Diane

    I have pushed this novel on every who asks — “have you read anything really good lately?”
    It is my all-time favorite read as it moved me like no book has ever done.

    So true what you said about the 700 pages — ” My answer is simply that you have to get completely immersed into these lives in order for the book to have the incredible emotive, happy and sad, effects that it does. ”

    So glad u loved it as well.

  3. I love that for some reason I thought you’d already reviewed this! I guess hearing about it on The Readers and You Wrote the Book and all your other social media, I just inferred how great it was.

  4. David

    Rather than three days, it took me two weeks to read “A Little Life” (it has been quite a while since a book has taken me that long to get through) and I’m still not sure what to make of it. It is so rich and involving and so devastating in its portrayal of a life defined by the most horrendous abuse, that I doubt I’ll ever forget it, and for the first 300 pages or so I was sure it was a masterpiece, but it is far too long (I disagree that it takes 700+ pages to fully immerse you in those characters – by page 200 they already felt like people I’d known for years), the number of abuses Jude suffers becomes almost ridiculous (I think only Jude didn’t know what lay in store the minute he met Caleb, and by the time we get to the legion of predatory truck drivers and Dr. Traylor – which section, incidentally, feels rushed – it has all got a bit too much), and it is hugely manipulative of the reader’s emotions (I was reminded of 80s/90s American TV movies like “I Know My First Name is Steven”). And Jude’s friends – that they all have glittering globetrotting careers where they can casually meet for New Year in Paris or wherever is credulity-stretching; that they are all destined for sainthood puts the tin hat on it. I take your point about the fairy tale-like way it has Goodies and Baddies, but that seems to be all it has – I often found myself wishing for a bit of grey in there (I actually felt relief when JB insults/betrays Jude as it felt like a glimmer of non-heightened reality for a change, but of course even that is put down to him being on drugs at the time… aagghh!).

    Minor things that bugged me: every time there is a gathering of Jude and Willem’s friends we get the same list of characters in attendance – Harold & Julia, Andy & Jane, JB, Malcolm & Sophie, Richard & India, the Henry Youngs, Citizen, Rhodes, Phaedra, Elijah… yet half of these never say or do anything and by the final time they all appeared I really wanted to take Phaedra and Elijah aside and ask them “who are you?” – other than them keep being mentioned I couldn’t remember who either of them were!
    And although Yanagihara studiously avoids mentioning what the year is or how much things cost or models of car – anything that would tie the novel to a date – I’m sure most of the book is set in the future. The only time a date is hinted at is when JB is sharing the studio with three other artists and one of them is making dioramas about American Asian history with one for each decade – he has made one for the 2000s which suggests we are in the current decade. JB is I think in his late twenties at this point and by the end of the book is in his early sixties making it the 2040s, yet despite characters getting older and Thanksgivings coming and going, the novel seems to exist in a permanent present day of emails and texting and laptops and sushi restaurants. Which is a bit odd.

    But – and it’s a big but – despite all that I was utterly engrossed and loved reading it. I even had slightly moist eyes for the final few pages. I suppose “flawed masterpiece” might best describe it.

    *Apologies: I’ve adapted this comment from one I posted elsewhere, as I couldn’t be mithered writing something from scratch.

  5. Janakay

    My reaction to the book falls between the two extremes of “it changed my life” and “it just didn’t work for me.” For the positives, I think Yanagihara is a tremendously talented writer, with a keen eye to social milieu and character(loved her descriptions of the New York art scene and its denizens). Her story drew me in immediately and I couldn’t stop reading; when a novel is 700 odd pages, well–that sort of reaction is a testament to an author’s skill. She was equally skillful in structuring the novel; the intersection of the present with the past made it possible for a reader to get through the descriptions of the horrific abuse Jude experienced and did a lot to sustain the tension necessary to get through those 700 pages. I also respected Yanagihara’s decision to avoid the pat answer and easy resolution–no matter how much we’d like to think otherwise, therapy isn’t a magic solution and some injuries are so deep there’s no recovering from them.
    But–and this is a big but–as a whole it was just too much of a fairy tale and went on way too long. As one of the previous commenters noted, certain incidents felt way too rushed towards the end, abusive incidents piled on top of one another (how much more could one character endure? Why not throw an earthquake or terrorist attack in there somewhere, along with everything else?), the whole glittery life style aspect became a little tedious (all that interior decoration) and the love story/aspect struck me as ultimately a bit of a harlequin romance.
    In short, I’m glad I read the book, the time was well spent but I’m personally rooting for Marlon James’ “A Brief History of Seven Killings” (a brilliant piece of writing) to win the Booker!

  6. Great review. I will be adding this book to my ‘get from the library’ list.

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  8. I really was gripped by this book (I was wandering around reading it whilst half heartedly doing chores / eating etc). Something about it is unforgettable – I think it’s the character of Willem that is most real after the book has finished.

    It’s definitely not perfect – Harold talking to Willem is a bit corny, and I’m not really sure why Malcolm is there. But the world and the characters are so vivid that I think you go along with it.

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  11. I’m with David on this one. Yes, it was an incredible gut wrenching obsessive compulsive reading binge, but….
    Every now and again I’d catch myself saying “really?” Or I’d feel manipulated or tricked. But the but’s were not enough to stop me devouring this book in great big greedy gulps.

    I guess we’ll find out very soon whether it’s been shortlisted or not.

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  21. I loved this book, but cannot really comprehend why it really had a such a big impact on me. Normally I am the most cynical when talking about horrible things that happen to main characters, but this time i just somehow allowed the author to shock me to the core and sweep me off my feet. It took me two weeks to read it, had to do it in smaller dosage…

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