• Tori Tobin

Review: A Little Life by Hanna Yanagihara

Updated: Sep 6

*A very difficult read, check content and trigger warnings. Do your research! This review contains minor spoilers.


As a result, the story is absolutely enthralling and I believe it is this mechanism that makes it all -consuming as a reader.y d

Xxksogical states-of-mind of the characters and their relationships to one another. We are largely cocooned in this environment with them, as there are very few references to the times, or the outside world/setting their story takes place in.

A Little Life is arguably one of the darkest and most traumatic books I have ever read. However, the novel offers a refreshingly modern, stunningly beautiful, and yet tragic take on friendship between four young men.


The book is divided into seven separate parts and follows a chronological narrative with flashbacks frequently interspersed throughout. The novel's narrative perspectives shift throughout the story's progression.


Synopis


A Little Life follows four college classmates—broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition—as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune. While their relationships, which are tinged by addiction, success, and pride, deepen over the decades, the men are held together by their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a man scarred by an unspeakable childhood trauma. A hymn to brotherly bonds and a masterful depiction of love in the twenty-first century, Hanya Yanagihara’s stunning novel is about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves.


These four men are tightly bound to each other, despite their differences: Willem, the handsome son of a Wyoming ranch hand, who works as a waiter but aspires to be an actor; Malcolm, the biracial scion of a wealthy Upper East Side family, who has landed an associate position with a famous European architect; Jean-Baptiste (JB), the child of Haitian immigrants, who works as a receptionist at a downtown art magazine in whose pages he aspires/expects to be featured one day; and Jude, a lawyer and mathematician, whose general origins are unknown.


My thoughts


Hanya Yanagihara’s first book (The People in the Trees, 2013) left me uncertain whether her second novel (A Little Life, 2015) would make it to my reading list. I'm glad it did, though.


Once I committed to the deeply emotional experience reading anything else by Yanagihara was sure to be, I was absolutely consumed, devastated, and inspired by the story.


Without going into any much detail, this book made me wonder how much emotional trauma (from reading fiction) I could take. It also made me wonder how much trauma our main character Jude could take.


The answer wasn't as simple as I expected. On both counts.


Simply put, this book destroyed me. My first time reading the novel was February 2016. My husband bought me the book for Valentine's Day. (I know, I know, we can unpack that some other time)


The book almost misleads you, though. At the start, you spend time with JB, Malcom, and Willem. When the story finally moves on to Jude, it's then you begin to realize what you've signed up for.


I've since read it three more times and come to the conclusion that I must be a complete glutton for devastation because it certainly doesn't get easier.


That being said, I'm the kind of person who can empathize with a rock, so I might be more sensitive than some readers. It's hard to tell.


For more detailed information on the themes (including spoilers), my favourite review of Yanagihara's novel was written by Garth Greenwell from the Atlantic.


While I was deeply traumatized and affected by this story, I found an odd sort of peace in the balance of tender moments provided. I found it cathartic in a way to experience such an emotional read that left me absolutely empty. It certainly left my heart a few sizes larger.


As much as Jude has this unspeakably dark past, each horrific revelation is also met by a kind of balance in his adult life. Each low moment is met by some kind of parallel high in the form of deep connections and a series of committed relationships that follow Jude through the book. None of these 'highs' magically 'fix' Jude, which I find to be a very honest way to approach the difficult subject matter.


The prevalent themes throughout the novel are: male friendships/relationships, trauma, support, recovery, and chronic pain, disability, and self harm.


I truly believe Yanagihara captured a snapshot of our age of anxiety, with all its accompanying range of dramas-as well as its solaces.


The plot, or well, actually the lack of a significant plot, is part of the story's charm for me. The story is almost entirely driven forward by the psychological states-of-mind of the characters and their relationships to one another. We are largely cocooned in this environment with them, as there are very few references to the times, or the outside world/setting their story takes place in. It is extremely immersive.


As a result, the story is absolutely enthralling and I believe it is this mechanism that makes it all-consuming as a reader.


Regardless of how much I personally enjoyed the experience of reading this book, I'm not sure I can, in good conscience, recommend it to a wide audience. When I do recommend it, I make sure to be very clear on my own experience.


One specific issue that came up for me during my subsequent reads was perhaps the borderline romanticization of chronic pain, abuse, and suffering (primarily Jude) to wring an emotional response from the reader. I'm still not entirely sure how I feel about this today, years after my first read.


I did feel however, with every single read, that emotional muscles, let's call them, were tested-and I don't think this is a bad thing for a book to elicit (even perhaps force) a kind of basic response in someone to feel compassion and perhaps even empathy, pity, and horror.

Final takeaways: Read at your own risk. Do your own research. Check for triggers. DNF if you need/want to.


Reach out of you want someone to talk to about it. I'd love to hear from you!


Xx

Tori



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