“What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier.” –
I want to review “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara because not since “The House at Pooh Corner” (when I was about 8) has a book made such an impact on me. The problem is I am not really sure how I am going to accomplish this task. This doorstop sized novel (700+ pages) is undoubtedly remarkable but it is also remarkably difficult to describe. Although I loved it, my response was an emotional one as opposed to an intellectual one, making objective evaluations of its strengths and weaknesses a challenge. And I have no idea who to recommend it to, given how harrowing it is in places. But without description, evaluation or recommendation, this entire review would probably read – “There is a novel called “A Little Life”. I loved it. There is at least a chance you will too. Give it a go.” And maybe that really is all that needs to be said, but given my penchant for making a short story long, I will try to elaborate.
“A Little Life” follows the lives of four men over about four decades. They start off as college graduates embarking on their adult life in NYC, and the text traces their ambitious career paths and their social and emotional turmoils until they reach their 60s. But while the early part of the novel skilfully depicts the character of each of the four men, as the narrative develops two of the quartet, Malcolm and JB, begin to fade to the background and the exquisitely beautiful friendship shared and treasured by Willem and Jude takes centre stage. In fact, the novel becomes largely about the damaged and sensitive soul that is Jude. His story, punctuated by abuse, self-harm, illness and self-loathing is a tale of relentless suffering and an epic struggle to conceal his entire childhood from everyone he loves and trusts. Where others see his beauty, he sees only ugliness and pain, and his desire to love and be loved is almost entirely curtailed by a deep-rooted sense of shame.
As the novel gets into its stride, much of the plot is occupied with flashbacks to the life Jude endured before he met his three closest friends in a New England University. Some of these glimpses into the past are horrific, but the density of the prose and the writer’s inclusion of the most minuscule of details, makes these disclosures shockingly realistic. We, as readers, also become acutely aware of how the past blights the present for Jude, tainting every day of his life. The harshness of that reality made parts of this book harrowing to read. Adult Jude loved his friends and was treasured by them in return, but he was so scarred that we fear that he may be beyond healing. It makes us cry with pain and frustration, and for me I don’t mean a little welling up, I mean sobbing to the extent that I had to take breaks from the text, despite being fully engrossed and having time on my hands. There were moments, more frequent as the plot progressed, where I simply couldn’t take anymore. And while objectively the story of Jude’s past eventually seemed too extreme for plausibility, the density of the description and the raw emotion in the prose made it easy to suspend any niggles of disbelief.
But for all the graphic descriptions that will make you shudder and wince, this is not a purely depressing read. Flickering through the darkness, there is a wonderful wisdom peppering the pages of this book. Lines will stick with you, and you will wish you were reading with a pencil to asterisk some real universal truths.
“Things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”
It is clear that the author is a keen observer of people and their capacity for love and compassion. Even when friendship and love can’t make suffering disappear, there is real beauty in watching the characters never give up on each other. There are many moments when your heart will melt as you see love in its purest form, fighting to be a powerful redemptive force. And is that not one of life’s most beautiful realities – that there are people who care enough about us to want to take the pain away, to make tomorrow a little brighter than today?
That said, don’t expect romance to triumph over reality here. “A Little Life” is not that kind of book. You will flinch. You will want to look away. You will hope for a reprieve. You will pray at times for miracles. But if you are anything like me, you won’t consider walking away, because you will simply be too invested in these characters and their New York lives. Reading “A Little Life” requires you to invest a sizable chunk of time and it really is emotionally draining in places, but trust me, it gives back more than it takes from you. In a way that I just can’t quantify or articulate, it changes you. Maybe because you close the cover with a greater grasp of the anxieties and dark thoughts that have become a feature of the modern world, or maybe because you realise that friendship and love are the only balm to ease the pain of living. They win out where ambition, success and money fail. Whatever the reasons, this book stayed with me, long after I arrived at the final full stop and I can’t imagine I am the only one. And so – “There is a novel called “A Little Life”. I loved it. There is at least a chance you will too. Give it a go.”