Book Review: A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

March 16, 2020

A Little Life was shortlisted for the Manbooker Prize all the way back in 2015, and has been shamefully sitting on my shelf since. I've tried to read it on four distinct occasions in the past, but have given up for one reason or another - until now! In an attempt to finally conquer my physical TBR, I have now finished what is most certainly an unforgettable book.

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From Goodreads: "When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.

Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever."

Update: I started writing this review in January as soon as I'd finished the book but decided that I actually couldn't focus on writing it because the book was so harrowing I needed a break to process my thoughts on it. It's now March and I think I'm finally ready!

Note: Although I'm late to the party with this one, I think it's still important to give a warning for the content of this book. It contains very graphic depictions of self-harm and abuse and drugs, etc. so it is certainly not for the young or the faint-hearted.

To put it quite simply: I loved this book. I think that's why I have struggled to put into words my feelings towards it without gushing about how great it was in xyz respects. I never cry at books, and this one upset me to the point where I didn't think I could carry on reading it - that's how powerful the writing and the character construction is. There are fantastic debates throughout around many topics, such as the art world and corporate culture to name a few. At the end of the book, I felt like I knew Willem, Malcolm, JB and Jude so well that I could talk about them in my daily life; I instinctively  knew how they would respond to situations I faced in my own world - and that's a type of character building I think is very rare and I have never experienced before in a book.

To keep things brief, I have structured this review according to what I didn't like rather than what I did - rest assured, apart from the three points below, I think it's one of the best books ever written, and one that will haunt me until I die.

What I didn't like

The disappearance of JB and Malcolm from the story

This book begins as a story about four friends from college, and ends as one about Jude and Willem. In fact, following the first of the seven sections of the story, the narrative is dominated by Jude and Willem, and JB and Malcolm fade into obscurity for hundreds of pages at a time. I thought this was a complete waste, given that so much time was given at the start to setting the book up as one about four friends. I spoke about this on my Instagram, and someone raised the point that this is a reflection of real life - friends come and go, and college friendships fade into obscurity as you get older - but in this case I feel the book shouldn't be described as one about a group of friends (which it always is). Further, my point was more that I think JB and Malcolm should've had more of their own stories in the book - regardless of whether they were close to Willem and Jude at that point in time. They were strong enough characters in their own right and it was a shame to almost completely lose them.

It gets repetitive

This book is long - 800 pages or so - and it could have been a lot shorter. A little disclaimer is that I'm not really a fan of long books, so I was inclined against the length of this one before I even began - but I do think there are exceptions, books where the story really does need that long until it's finished (Gone with the Wind is an example). But in this case, there was a lot of pretentious waffle which could have been cut out without any impact on the narrative.

Yanagihara has this really annoying technique of writing a character's rambling thoughts all run into one another - and whilst this can work when employed every so often, I kept finding myself skimming chunks of text which made little sense. She may as well have written 'Jude's thoughts were spiralling' and had done with it. There was also a bizarre tendency to list the name of every single character present in a room, or attending an event: 'Julia and Harold and Jude and Willem and JB and Malcolm and Sophie and Lucien and Sanjay' (not a direct quote, but an example of how it was done). When this same three lines is repeated every 30 pages or so, it really is overbearing, and even cringeworthy -  I felt at these points like these sentences were inserted for some kind of artistic technique - whatever it was, I really didn't care for it.

It's ahistorical

Throughout this book, there is a complete lack of historical and cultural markers, a device which I'm not sure whether I'm impressed by or disappointed in. It's well executed, but I'm not really sure what the point of it is. There are references to computers and other technology, as well as the film industry Willem works in, so the book feels like it's set anywhere from the 80s to the 00s, and therefore isn't timeless - I imagined the book as set in the 90s the entire time I read it. I think my point here is just that it confused me. I wasn't sure whether Yanagihara was trying to make the story timeless, or whether there were specific topics she didn't want to go into (HIV/AIDs being the main one) - which I actually think would've added to the story. Again, like with the rambling speech/thoughts, this was just one of those devices which I think is pretentious and found annoying throughout.


Those three critical comments above were written back in January straight after I'd finished the book - looks like I had a lot of angst in me at that moment in time! I will say that now, a few months on, having mulled over the book, these points of criticism have faded in my mind and I remember more how addicted I was to Jude's story - in fact, I don't think a book has ever hooked me as much as this, which is bizarre, considering that not much happens throughout. I know now that it is a book that will never leave me - one of those rare gems which has reminded me of the true power of reading.

Have you read A Little Life? Will you be adding it to your TBR? 

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