Book Review: A Little Life

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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.

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