Review: A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara

A remarkable, yet eviscerating tragedy that spans decades – full lifetimes – and is primarily concerned with the showcasing of the depths (and never-ending bounds) of love, friendship, family, and belonging.

Published by Anchor

816 Pages. Full Length Novel

Title: "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara. Entire page shaded in blue, a man closing his eyes and leaning on a hand, seemingly in a kind of emotional distress. Author name Hanya Yanagihara included on the bottom.

“And so I try to be kind to everything I see. And in everything I see, I see him” says an unnamed narrator.

Near the end of this sprawling, 50+ year saga, around the 800-page mark, Yanagihara delivers this gut-wrench of a line (in a novel that is truly, chock full of devastating, unspeakable moments), after having placed her reader through the story of a lifetime. By no means is that an exaggeration. A Little Life (2015) feels like a once-in-a-lifetime story; a rarity that, once that last line is read, that last page flipped, feels profoundly life altering, oddly galvanizing, entirely brutalizing in its lingering effect.

Told in the third-person perspective, A Little Life follows a tight-knit friend group of four college graduates: Jude St. Francis, Willem Ragnarsson, JB Marion, and Malcolm Irvine, with a beautifully realized New York City serving as the backdrop for the entirety of the novel. Each fresh-faced, broke, but with more than enough heart, ambition, and loyalty to one another to compensate for the lack of measly personal funds, Yanagihara seamlessly balances POV shifts between her four leads in a manner that can only be described as masterful.

There is the good-natured, unapologetic, and queer JB; an aspiring visual artist, highly sociable, and well-connected, JB spends his days gravitating between different mediums in the pursuit of crafting, and eventually curating, the perfect collection of aggregated works to elevate his prestige within the cutthroat world of gallery art. Or the eager-to-prove-himself Malcolm, a recent graduate of architecture, who despite coming from a wealthy background, is wholly determined to completely break apart from his financially privileged upbringing to make a name for himself. Or the handsome and entirely charismatic actor, Willem, who despite his never-ending luck with women, seemingly cannot emulate the exact same effect in terms of landing high profile roles (or any roles, really) – in film, stage, and otherwise. And has thus placed him in a position where he is forced to serve food and drink to the wealthy at an upscale restaurant to make a living, something of a rite-of-passage for aspiring actors in New York City, hoping to make a name for themselves. And finally, the enigmatic, intelligent, and beautiful Jude. Articulate, extremely well-read and educated, and a brilliant litigator, Jude carries with him an inexplicable melancholy that both befuddles and perturbs his closest friends. And yet, this is something that Jude refuses to talk about, to touch with a ten-foot pole.

Never have I become as immersed in the rich interior lives of characters, than I have with my reading experience of A Little Life. The tapestry of the lives of our four friends feels so frighteningly grounded, it often felt as though I could pick up my phone to shoot off a text to any of our given lead characters in the middle of a jostling, ruinous scene. Yanagihara’s beautifully rendered illustration of the trajectory of the lives of our four leads, is painted with words that read like advanced (or highest form of) language. On a technical level, this novel is flawless. Stylistically? The writing on display speaks to my innermost core. The author does not rely on symbolic language, more so than articulating the intricacies of living in the everyday. Light on plot, the author instead prioritizes capturing the extraordinary within the mundane. As she should. Life, living, is not propelled by some underlying plot structure. It is messy, it is repetitive, it can be isolating. The writing perfectly captures the language of living in the everyday so deftly, in manner I have yet to see in any other work.

Yet, for all of A Little Life’s literary merits – even being shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize in 2015 – its Yanagihara’s focus on Jude’s traumatic past that, while wholly upsetting, brutalizing, and unrelenting in equal measures (please check trigger warnings), ostensibly makes A Little Life a singular story of a lifetime..

As human beings, it is our responsibility to not turn away from the suffering of others; rather, to bear witness, to heed our ability to empathize with experiences vastly different from ours. A Little Life is not an easy read. Often, its effect is emotionally assaultive. Yanagihara does not shy away from extremely triggering subject matter, with the novel illustrating moments of unspeakable brutality in a manner that is both honest, and wholly transparent. It is fair to say that every trigger included in this novel, is shown in quite graphic detail. I have read numerous articles and criticism that call the novel an unending work of trauma dumping, a ceaseless attack on the good faith of readers in the form of disturbing subject matter, shock-factor for the sake of eliciting reaction from readers.

While I certainly understand the validity of these claims, Yanagihara undeniably knows what she is doing with our four leads, with the heart of her story in Jude. Therein lies the subversive brilliance of this novel; while the novel, at the outset, encapsulates the perspectives of our four friends, the story does shift to favour Jude’s perspective; his recanting of the first fifteen years of his life. And while these sections are difficult to read, Yanagihara provides consolation in the form of relationships, of friendship. This is especially prominent in the latter half of the novel. As Yanagihara denotes:

“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”

A Little Life is unforgettable. A masterwork of the cornerstones of the human experience. It is about the challenges of getting up out of bed to live one’s own life every single day; of the unspoken fight against the volatility of one’s own mind. It is about family and finding that sense of belonging in others. It is a novel that I insist people not only read to better understand my inclinations and tastes as a reader, but to better understand me as an individual, a human being. But more than anything, despite its difficult moments, at its core, this novel is about love – of seeing love all around you, in the smallest, most insignificant of moments. I care for these characters, like I would my own family. These boys, this remarkable once-in-a-lifetime story, will always inhabit a special place in my heart.

And if that does not convince you to read this, then I am not sure what will.

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