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Book Review: ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

Book Review: ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara

I had to put this book down so many times before I could finish it. Dubbed the best-written book of our generation, it is also described as one of the most heart-wrenching, devastating, disturbing, most depressing book ever read. Powerful and honest prose, A Little Life was almost torture to finish. I couldn’t put it down, but at the same time, I pushed and pulled with my conscience to take a break for my mental health. Incredibly difficult to read, I have only ever read one book with tougher content (My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, if you really must know – read with caution). I made myself read only one chapter a week, when normally, with prose written as addictively as this, it would take me perhaps 4 or 5 days to finish it entirely. Whether it made it worse – that I had to sit and properly take in what had happened that chapter – I don’t know.

A Little Life follows the life of a young man named Jude, and his friends, Willem, JB, and Malcolm; their meeting at university; and their lives growing older in New York. Always intertwined in some respect, this book unravels the meaning of true friendship, which shines like a lighthouse beacon throughout the book. Every time the content is hard and cruel, the friendship and love cuts through. The star character is Jude St. Francis, who is a star to everyone but himself.

Jude has endured too many tough, life-changing moments in his life, any one of them being almost too much to bear, but the hardest part to read about Jude is his inability to love himself, and his longing to get better not for himself, but for the others around him. His awareness of knowing his personal boundaries, wanting to surpass them, but just not being able to. Jude is standing in the doorway of his life, never being able to step outside onto the porch. He can’t bring himself to voice the past he grapples with, and his non-existent self-esteem that comes with it. When you’re depressed and someone asks you how you are, the answer “Fine” seems almost like a call for help, when outwardly it says the opposite. Jude is crying out for help, for connection, for love, and true kindness, without ever having the ability to do so.

One of the most overwhelming reactions when I talk about this book is, “I’ve never experienced so much love.” Love is the strongest theme in the book, with agape (unconditional love) and philia (familial love) taking centre stage. It’s the love of Jude’s friends that care for him as a doctor, as adopted parents, as someone who understands Jude, as someone who builds a home for Jude, as someone who mentors Jude, and someone who captures Jude through art – because he can never see his own beauty or worth.

It is a slow burn, and at over 700 pages, it’s an intimidating read. The story is slow and winding, jumping between character’s point of view, and moments in time. The narrative is so aware of human behaviour, that it’s like seeing ultimate clarity almost of our own consciousness. If someone saw your life through your own mind, thoughts and all, and could explain moments that you couldn’t even understand. Hanya Yanagihara puts to words thoughts that you’ve had that are so fleeting and intangible, you didn’t even know you had had them until you read a sentence that triggers your memory of a thought that wasn’t quite a thought. Yanagihara delves so deeply into the minds and thoughts of the characters that you know them more deeply than you know your own friends. She creates the characters’ personalities not by telling you how they are, but by being who they are. The reason A Little Life is so heart-wrenching is not because you have been told a story, but because you have become the characters; you have lived a full life being the characters – bad days, deepest thoughts, hopeful weeks, and hopeless years.

There are times in this book when I had to close my eyes to stop myself from reading the next words. It’s like a car crash. Everything slows down, the car is flying through the air, time stops for a second and everything is stuck in place. But then, time starts again, you keep on reading, the car hits the tarmac, you are irrevocably changed. Most storytellers have a line that they do not cross, for example, there’s not many writers that would kill the dog. Hanya Yanagihara kills the metaphorical dog. She holds nothing back. She is not afraid to rip apart the story – all you’ve ever known in this little life! But that’s life, isn’t it? Sometimes the dog does die, even if it breaks your heart – regardless of whether it breaks your heart. Perhaps that’s why A Little Life is so heart-breaking to read. Because it’s real, and it’s life, and it doesn’t stop for anyone. Willem sums up this perfectly towards the end of the novel, “…a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.”

If this year has taught us anything, it’s the importance of our health. Jude struggles with his health throughout the book, and it leaves us with the feeling of a fist around our heart. It is that fear of the worst that can happen in sickness – when it is out of our hands, when you want to cure someone but cannot, when there is nothing you can do but watch it unfold.

I cannot express how much I loved this book. I agree with the critics and really do believe that it’s one of the best books of our generation. As an English Lit graduate, I can say that I’ve read a lot of classic, life-changing books in my time, and A Little Life takes its place up on the podium among the best of them. We are lucky to read a book like this in our lifetimes. It is rare to find not only an extraordinary not-commonly-told story, but with extraordinary writing and narrative to match. It was an ordeal reading this book, one that spilled many a tear, but nevertheless, I’m looking forward to reading it all over again (albeit with a couple of year’s grace), if only so I can experience Jude’s journey, to look at all that hardship, loss, and love, and watch in awe.