Attempting to find the words to succinctly explain how much I adore this book has been like trying to capture a tornado within a fishing net. I read this book back in July and have been combing through my thoughts repeatedly in order to force this review out into the world. Hopefully its not totally incoherent, so here we go.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara explores the deepest effects of trauma and how its unquenchable nature can shatter an individual. A summary of the book will give you a rough idea of what I had in mind when I started reading:
“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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.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” – GoodReads Plot overview
This book, however, was not what I expected it to be and its dark depths engrossed me immediately.
Throughout the novel your gradually faced with the idea and realisation that some people don’t get saved and can’t be repaired, regardless of the efforts of those around them. This book is not for faint hearts; Yanagihara doesn’t hold back as she vividly recounts not only the physical abuse imposed upon a child, but the self inflicted pain in response to that. A Little Life is a stunning novel but it isn’t for everybody, so I’d give it a miss if you know your not one for graphic scenes as well as other aspects which people may find triggering.
I gave this powerful book five stars on Good reads, something I don’t do often at all. A little life divulges through some very dark subject matter, however the characters are so diverse and complex I didn’t once feel put off but rather determined to see where the story line would take them.
There will spoilers within this discussion!
I first have to mention the criticism surrounding this book; some felt the book was melodramatic and unrealistic in its portrayal of abuse and mental illness, pointedly because of its excessive nature. However, when I was reading this book, I was so enraptured by the characters, by Jude’s complex manner of living, that I didn’t think twice about the realism of the situation. I lived and breathed with the characters in this book, so it was only after I finished it that I noted on how fantastical Jude’s misfortunes could be perceived.
When researching for this review I focused a lot on what Yanagihara herself had to say; that this book was a mixture of Contemporary Naturalistic Fiction with Fairy Tale elements, explaining the lack of women within the novel as well as the success the characters all experience in their professional careers. The elements of Fairy Tale offer a distorted perception of reality and you can see that through the the lack of time, women and the absence of any descriptions of New York in the book, creating an ambiguous back drop that may warp the realism of the story for the reader. These are the first indicators, I feel, that relay how this story isn’t an exact interpretation of contemporary society. The reality surrounding Jude (and the other characters) dwindles away and becomes insignificant as the obsession Jude has with his past dominates the narrative, morphing him into the antagonist as he unhesitatingly destroys himself, negatively impacting the characters closest to him.
Jude’s character never felt gratuitous to me because I don’t think Yanagihara was attempting to depict a balanced and realistic representation of the affects of trauma, child abuse, depression etc. Jude is a character brimming with an overwhelming amount of pain, with no escape, no matter how hard he tries. He is an accumulation of all things excessive; the amount of abuse he has suffered and the amount he hurts himself all build up to support this idea. The futility linked to his character is both devastating in its heartbreak but terrifying in its revelations about how people could be affected if they never really moved on in their lives. Yanagihara is questioning societies obsession with being happy and moving forward by creating a character that goes all the way around in life, but still ends up where he started. This is both harrowing and comforting in its acceptance that not everybody gets better, allowing those who are dealing with such issues to feel less isolated and fearful of failure as its not about beating it and then moving on. Mental health is often a continuous journey and whilst Jude’s life ends, I believe this novel is liberating in its acceptance that your allowed to feel what your feeling. Jude never gets better because he embraces what was done to him and lets that define him, but being able to read a novel so focused on mental health in such detail, with such a brilliant cast of characters, makes the emotional strain your under worth it. In some ways, I was relieved when Jude could finally go. He was getting the peace he never truly found in life.
I have to highlight how much this book has influenced me in terms of how I think and regard certain ideas, especially about characters in fiction. These characters were absolutely wonderful to read and I can’t stop thinking about them because they felt so real. Even though Jude’s ‘excessive’ nature dominated the plot, I was with him the entire novel and I only got to understand why people view him as ‘too much’ in retrospect. Just to clarify, Jude never felt excessive to me when I was reading this book and I only discuss it so much in this review because I’m trying to explain my understanding of why people might feel that way about his character.
Willem was most likely my favourite character, not just because of the relationship he builds with Jude, but because of the hope he brings to the story, despite how fleeting that hope is. Their slow journey from friendship to romantic partners felt so natural and inherently right that it does make you question the boundaries and labels people tie to themselves. Both Jude and Willem are dismissive and uncaring when asked to proclaim their sexuality, refusing to weigh themselves down with the expectations others might have when considering two men in a relationship with one another. There was none of that. They were free.
I hope you enjoyed my exploration of some of the ideas I have surrounding this book. I’ve been struggling to get this review right for nearly five months, but fuck it, here it is anyway. Check out not just A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara but also her other novel, The People In the Trees, which I gave four stars on Good Reads. Hanya is a spectacular author, constructing vivid characters that make you question the right and wrongs of society. Don’t miss out. Her work is truly brilliant, in my opinion.