A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
I first happened upon A Little Life whilst tidying the shelves at Book Cycle. It was tucked away in the unloved ‘X, Y & Z’ section (which was made up of about 75% Zusak and 15% Zweig), and I only really noticed it because I’d never seen it there before. It was thicker than most books, and the cover was nice and bold but nothing special – nothing like the wonderful use of ‘Orgasmic Man’ by Peter Hujar that the hardback version has. The blurb on the back didn’t give me much information, either – all I knew was that it involved a group of university students. I figured I’d give it a go; the book was free, after all.
After doing some research I was surprised to learn I had apparently been living under a rock and this book had been immensely popular, despite its length. However, I soon realised, this book had a serious case of Marmite: either you loved it or hated it. I watched a couple of vague reviews, one woman damning it to Hell and the other tearing up as she described its beauty. Typically, I’m on the more cynical, critical side of the argument, so I began reading A Little Life with slightly low expectations.
In short, A Little Life is about four friends who meet at university – Malcolm, an architect, JB, an artist, Willem, an actor and Jude, a lawyer. It follows their lives from their twenties to their fifties. I can’t say much more. Things started off slow at first. I was interested, but how could I be invested? I wasn’t sure of the writing style or the dialogue to begin with, and nothing instantly grabbed my attention. I liked it, but didn’t dedicate much time to it. I flipped through pages absent-mindedly whilst eating my lunch, not expecting much. The characters were cute, some of it was witty, whatever.
And then suddenly the book developed an endless tunnel of layers. The further I sunk into its pages, the more the writing style and the characters began to resonate with me. It was very much, in that sense, like peeling an onion when you’re ravenously hungry and you have a delicious onion omelette planned, for lack of a better analogy. And yes, onions make you cry. The more I read this book, the stronger my connection with the characters grew. It is very much a character-driven novel, so, of course, that’s crucial. This is in no way a light-hearted book. Don’t let the first few pages fool you (despite the fantastic hints dropped throughout the first chapters). It tackles exceptionally difficult topics – sexual abuse, self harm and domestic violence to name a few – and although the writing is not graphic, per se, it sugarcoats nothing.
This book became almost an obsession. As soon as I found myself with a free period at college, I’d practically sprint to the library and start reading it. An hour was never enough, and I’d often find myself finally dragging myself out of the world of A Little Life to find my next lesson had started ten minutes ago. I had not had such a fixation with a book for a long, long time. The last lines I’d read were constantly whirring in my mind, and I thought of its characters so fondly that one might mistake them for my close friends. There was one instance, I recall, when I had to climb a flight of stairs and thought to myself, “This is ridiculous! I can’t climb those; my legs won’t be able to manage it. Why isn’t there a lift?” You see, one of the characters, Jude, has quite severe leg injuries and struggles greatly with walking and climbing long distances. A Little Life had taken over mine.
I cried whilst reading this book five times. I have never cried whilst reading a book before, and the only movie that made me cry was Donnie Darko. I love books, but I’m not a very emotional person when it comes to entertainment. Several parts made me cry, and I had to stop reading whilst I ate my lunch because I couldn’t even breathe properly. I sobbed, totally and completely, at one part of the book and also at the end – simply because it had finished. How could something I love so much end? It was a loss of life, a loss of a limb. I raced through this book and all its 700+ pages, but berated myself for doing so. It was impossible not to inhale the whole thing, but I wished I had the willpower to savour it.
Most of the criticisms for this book revolve around the fact that it’s too unrealistic both in its positive and negative experiences. For example, some characters suffer unimaginable trauma, but some are impossibly successful. I see this as a conscious decision. This is a work of fiction. The highs and lows are taken to the extreme – it’s almost as if it’s a study on what the human body and mind can endure. And I thought this was a good thing. Others have also off-handedly referred to this as “torture porn” and perhaps the descriptions of abuse will be difficult for some readers to deal with, but despite some scenes being very hard to read, it’s not an unpleasant book. This book has a central, overwhelmingly positive theme, and that is friendship.
I had to give this five stars in my head as it’s had such a strong impact on me. I want to talk about it so much more, but it’s difficult to discuss without spoiling things. I urge anyone to read it, however. I always give it its own special shelf at Book Cycle when it pops up every so often. Everyone deserves a chance to read this novel.