A Little Life
By Hanya Yanagihara
A novel of extraordinary intelligence and heart, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark and haunting examination of the tyranny of experience and memory.Tweet
The Spread the Word reading group were allocated Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life' as one of the Bailey's Prize shadow reading groups 2016.
We've written our own short reviews on the novel:
I had mixed feelings about ‘A Little Life.’ The book is engrossing and thoughtful, particularly about close friendships. That made it all the more frustrating when Jude, and the terrible things that happen to him, form the centre of the book. Jude is clearly a divided character: a ruthless lawyer; a brilliant singer, baker, and mathematician; a horrendously damaged victim of abuse who compulsively self-harms. He’s wonderful at nearly everything he puts his hand to that doesn’t involve people. For me, these extremes made him difficult to believe in. As a result, his story began to seem more like a martyrdom than a real person’s life. The fact that nearly everyone around him is either a monster or a saint only added to that impression. That being said, I still thought ‘A Little Life’ was more interesting and memorable than other, safer, books.
A Little Life is one of the most affecting books I've ever read. I both loved and hated it, almost in equal measure. Hanya's gorgeous prose, the way she describes light and colour, hooked me in the early stages - that and the way she so quickly had you caring what happened to Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm - meant that you needed to read to the very end, no matter how painful it was.
The one overwhelming feeling I was left with was that Jude experienced imposter syndrome to the most extreme degree. The love and loyalty he received from his friends, the unlikely event of being adopted as an adult by adoring people and the ultimate success he achieved in his professional life were all things he felt he did not deserve. The seeds planted in that little boy's head, nurtured by cruelty and sadism at various hands, left him with a belief that he could not shake - that he was an essentially bad person who did not deserve a good life, let alone the love of people like Willem, Harold and Andy.
If I had known before I started A Little Life just how traumatic it was going to be, I'm not sure I would have started it. But I'm very glad I did.
I've heard a lot about this book - like a LOT - and I had some fairly strong preconceptions about reading it: namely, that it would be heartbreaking and that I would enjoy it regardless. To my surprise, neither of those things turned out to be true.
Don't get me wrong, there were a few moments when I was genuinely moved, or felt I was reading something revelatory... but there were only maybe five or six of them in total, which is a fairly low hit rate for a 700 page novel. At its best, A Little Life reminded me of Virginia Woolf's [amazing] The Waves, which also follows a group of friends throughout they lives, observing the ways in which the world shapes them differently. But where Woolf's writing, dense though it is, offers extraordinary moments of insight, peering beyond the veil of perception and illuminating the emotional mechanics that sit beneath the day to day, A Little Life mostly seems to stay much closer to the surface.
That wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but it's also relentless - relentlessly introspective, relentlessly miserable - and that relentlessness ended up just flattening everything out for me. In fact, it's one of the few novels I've read recently where I found it almost impossible to suspend my disbelief, to forget that I was reading the words of an author and lose myself in the characters' lives; to see them as real people rather than paper dolls to be played with and, in one case at least, cut to ribbons.
I'm pretty sure most people would disagree with me on this one - and please do, because I'd be curious to hear your opinions - but as much as I wish I could say otherwise, this book is not for me.
The writing and emotional landscape in this book slayed me. At 720 pages, it should, I think, have been cut down by about 200 pages. In a similar vein of Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose, Charles Frazer's Cold Mountain or Marilyn French's Women's Room, sometimes the minutiae is what breathes life and understanding into a story, into another human being's life. I admit to nearly sobbing at the beauty of Yanagihura's prose and the way Jude and Willem were brought to life. There is some criticism that the narrator's voice reads like a voice-over but I didn't mind it. Yanagihara also stuck to her guns with her message that child abuse is not something one can leave behind. One critic praised that aspect of the book by saying the lack of a happy ending was refreshingly unAmerican. I can see that. This is a book I know I will think about for years to come. Be warned, it's nearly as emotionally harrowing as A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Almost, but not quite.
This book is the perfect reading group pick in lots of ways: it provoked a lot of discussion and raised some really interesting questions about what we expect from the books we read. All of us found it an emotionally challenging book (who wouldn't?) and one member of the group wasn't able to finish it - I certainly struggled to keep going at some points, although I'm glad I did.
A Little Life is unflinching in its treatment of abuse, trauma and depression. Sometimes this felt over the top or gratuitous and we agreed that at points the book's onslaught of misery actually made us feel detached: because there's no humour or lightness of touch we felt less involved in the characters' lives and sometimes it felt like Yanagihara was testing the readers, experimenting with form rather than attempting to write a believable narrative.
That said, it's extremely rare that you read a book that is so emotionally affecting. It's an achievement, but it's probably not a book that we would recommend to others without a note of caution.
In the second part of the Spread the Word reading group's reviews of A Little Life as a Bailey's Prize shadow reading group, three more members of the group tussle with this complex novel that, we all concur, is 'not for the faint hearted':
A Little Life was a great choice for a book group, as it offers up a lot for discussion. Hanya’s writing is clear and precise, and she has an extraordinary ability to unpack an emotion into a paragraph, in all its complexities, so that you feel it right along with the character. She also brings you a high level of detail so that you can see a painting, or a room, perfectly in your own mind (though I think this is also a weakness). I also liked her use of time - going backwards and forwards - partly because I feel this is how we live (one foot in all our previous experiences) so that they bleed into the present, and partly because I think the book would have been much weaker as a chronological narrative.
Having said that I do have several issues with it. The cast of supporting characters is so broad, and many of them don’t have a lot of substance. In fact I think Malcolm, JB, Andy and Richard are nowhere near as fully drawn as Jude and Willem. The novel is billed as being about four friends, which it really isn’t, in the end - I have no problem with this but I feel it suffers from having so many viewpoints at the beginning which dwindle, and leave you wondering why we needed them in the first place. There’s a corresponding problem with the level of detail - sometimes less would have been more. Do we really need to know about everyone at a party? It’s often difficult to know which details we’re meant to find important and carry with us through the book. Dr Traylor I found to be one calamity too many - the suffering is just turned up beyond eleven, and what came before would have been enough. Lastly - all four of them are wildly successful at what they choose to do. Really?? No one had to retrain as an accountant? The novel ended up feeling hyper-real, and then unreal, and that undermined, for me, the tragedy of Jude.
I wept, for sure, and I would definitely read another of her novels, but this one seems to have too many flaws to be deserving of the prize. (I still have no idea why A God in Ruins isn’t on the shortlist.)
A Little Life is not a book for the faint hearted, but the reward of knowing the troubled but lovable characters makes it all worthwhile. I think it is important to not know much about the novel before you read it. I was simply told it is about graduates making their way in New York, and for this I am glad. Had I known about the actual reality of the book I would have had preconceived ideas and probably wouldn’t have read it.
Hanya is a master of creating characters that are so intricately detailed that you believe in them, and due to the length of the novel you begin to care for them. I think this is why the length of the novel (over 700 pages) isn’t too jarring, as because you care for the characters, particularly Willem and Jude, you don’t really want it to end. The characters become your fictional friends and I couldn’t wait to revisit them. They have flaws like everyone in the world and this is what makes them so great: you stop seeing them as characters and more as people. We see them develop over many years and when the book is finished it felt like I had lost multiple friends. This skill that Hanya possesses is rare and valuable, and makes A Little Life a literary gem.
* From this point onwards the review contains spoilers. *
The novel is unique in the sense that it almost only has male characters and explores male relationships only. Sometimes this was a negative for me; not because I wanted female characters explored but that it sometimes felt that every male character had to have some sexual motive (with the exception of Harold). When Willem and Jude became a couple I can’t deny that I didn’t roll my eyes because I felt like the story would be so much sweeter if Jude could have a relationship with a man that was not sexual. This was frustrating because I wanted Jude to have a friend who wouldn’t look at him in that way, the type of friend he really wanted who would care and be there for him and not expect any sexual reward. In other circumstances Jude’s relationship with Willem would have been sweet but after all of Jude’s abuse I was disappointed that he couldn’t just have a best friend, but that his best friend had to be his lover (which caused him a whole load of other problems and increased his cuttings).
The actual events in the novel provoked conflicting emotions. I actually read the book and listened to the audiobook when commuting so the cutting scenes were heightened when I listened to it. The flashbacks to abuse and cutting really made this a draining book, but also rewarding. Hanya is excellent at displaying emotions, and feelings, with small details. I understood why Jude cut himself and my heart went out to him every time he did. It opened my eyes to why some people cut themselves, something before this book I hadn’t thought about in much detail.
That said – the amount of abuse in his past was haunting, and maybe (though this is controversial) unrealistic. I don’t mean unrealistic as in this doesn’t happen but I feel like it was dramatised in this book to constantly happen to Jude throughout his life (which again is controversial). He is abused by the pastors, Uncle Luke, by the care workers, then he runs away to be a child prostitute, then a crazy psychologist locks him away and abuses him, and into adulthood he is abused by his boyfriend Caleb. At times it was just too much. Which is the point, I suppose, as the last straw leads him to his final demise. However, from the point of view of a reader at times I just wanted a break – some kind of light at the end of the tunnel – and I started to not believe in Jude at times because I would wonder how can so many horrific things constantly happen.
However, Hanya does explore the character of the victim in excellent detail and also men’s relationships which is something not really done in other novels. Hanya demonstrates that men are no different to women, and so if one of the characters were to be changed to female not much else would change. Gender is not the point of the novel. The point is the effects of sexual and emotion abuse in a person’s entire lifetime, and how this affects every relationship the person may have.
To conclude this rambling review, I feel good for reading A Little Life. It is harrowing, dark at times, light at times, gruelling but also comforting – A Little Life evokes from readers all the emotions we feel in everyday life, and that is what makes it such a satisfying read. The writing inspired me and whilst the content was sometimes hard to read I think that makes it necessary to read. It stays with you long after you read it, and for me that is the sign of a great novel. Despite the problems I have with A Little Life I would still give it 5 stars because the problems reflect those of everyday life, the way things do not go as you would want them to, and I think that is the point Hanya was ultimately making with A Little Life.
A Little Life was quite an intense read. Hanya Yanagihara's writing is very raw and very honest.
I could relate to all four main characters in terms of trying to be successful in their careers, their relationships, just going through life. Hanya has broken the rules in writing this novel, but I believed the world she created, that even though she could throw every type of emotion possible - I stayed with it no matter how painful. This novel is going to stay with me for life.