A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is huge in size and scope yet it contains no waste, no filler. It is an emotionally intelligent exploration of love and friendship which challenges the reader to consider difficult subjects such as childhood abuse, self harm, and the inability to escape memory. Despite this darkness it is also a beautifully written and compelling story.
The book opens in contemporary New York where four classmates from a small Massachusetts college have recently moved to start their careers. Willem is an aspiring actor, JB an undiscovered artist, Malcolm a trainee architect and Jude a lawyer. Each are introduced to the reader through narration of their shared experiences told from the perspectives of the protagonists and those they are close to. The cast is large and effortlessly diverse, their lives both ordinary and extraordinary.
The relationships between these four friends ebbs and flows. Backgrounds and influences are revealed, new friendships forged; partners come and go, priorities change. The bonds between each of the men is stretched to its limit at times as they deal with the altering attention each offers to the others. The writing is raw and powerful, an emotional roller coaster that somehow remains balanced by the quality of the prose.
There is much in the story that is uplifting but it has a dark heart. The impact of Jude’s memories effects each of the men. The intensity of certain sections relating to Jude’s childhood and his subsequent need to self-harm is challenging to read, but these grim and explicit passages are necessary for understanding. They are detailed but not sensationalist. The personal reflections allow the reader to better empathise even when action or inaction generates despair.
As the plot progresses so too does the depth of the storytelling. The writing is sparse in places, lyrical in others, but always impressive. The friends age and the layers of their lives are peeled back revealing a tenderness to counter the horror; a love story in the purest sense.
This is a remarkable literary achievement which left me feeling emotionally stunned but exceptionally satisfied. A Little Life is, quite possibly, the best book I have ever read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Picador.
I am impressed that you were able to write such a succinct review. I found this book quite difficult, but I loved it for all the reasons you mention. I had trouble with the level of suffering that Jude goes through however, and wondered what it added to the story. But hey. I still loved the writing, and I would read something else by Yanagihara.
Thank you for a great post.
Thank you 🙂
I felt at times that the author was pushing the reader as close to the bounds of endurance as they could go but that this added to the understanding of why Jude continued to view and treat himself as he did. It felt a very real if raw depiction of the mindset of an abuse survivor, the fact that his survival was so compromised.
His need to retain control, even of his self harm, brought home how powerless a child is, how society relies on adults to be decent. Even loyal Willem closed his eyes to the truth when it did not accord with his own desires. I thought that section was one of the most honest explorations of a relationship that I have ever read.
I didn’t even want the relationship to happen – so much could go wrong and didn’t think either of them were ready at that point. I rooted for them though during the relationship and I wished it could’ve been perfect from the get-go. But not that kind of book, heh. It was always going to be a challenge.
I did love reading about that relationship, was so moved by it, how it developed and changed, as uncomfortable as it made me sometimes at first. Yeah, so, so honest which is rare. The imperfections laid bare and addressed.
The suffering Jude goes through never felt sensationalist ever. It’s written with such respect for the survivor and there are many aspects of Jude’s current life and his choices that could be explained by examining those experiences closely. Also, I’ve read/heard about worse that’ve happened to people in real life so I never thought it was too much anyway.
Although when you’re explaining the plot of the book to someone, it’s basically tragedy after tragedy.
But then, again, it doesn’t read that way at all because I fell in love with the characters and then loved watching them love each other and became so immersed in the book and felt like a part of it.
Loved this review!!
Good review of what sounds like a beautifully written book. I think it might be a bit too emotionally devastating for me, though. Have you ever read something that was good, but really wished you hadn’t read it? I have to be careful of that, lol.
It is certainly powerful and touches on difficult subjects with searing honesty. I also found it uplifting though, being a story of love and of friendships that last many years despite the challenges. And the writing, oh the writing is magnificent.
I have read books that made me angry, whose characters were presented as flawed heroes who I despised, but I rarely regret reading a book unless it is badly written. Then I think of the good books I could have spent that time on.
Thank you for reading and commenting 🙂
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