Book review: ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara [2015]

Goodreads summary: 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realise, 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.

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After a few weeks of blogging, I’m starting to get more of a grip of what it is that I like to read: without a doubt my favourite genre is contemporary fiction. And this week’s book is the epitome of everything that I love. ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara is a harrowing exploration of friendship, love and trauma, beautifully written and in no way light-hearted. My main feeling upon beginning this novel was confusion; figuring out the characters took a little while, but I knew immediately that I would enjoy it. The group dynamic, whilst not obvious, is intriguing from the start and as I was slowly drawn into the narrative I happily followed the author’s focus as she started to delve further into Jude’s mind. As the plot slowly unravels the reader is afforded the same discombobulating experience as Jude’s friends – You desperately want to know more, but when you do you wish you didn’t. It’s like clawing away at your own skin, completely fascinated and unable to stop despite the pain.

The characterisation in ‘A Little Life’ is subtle, but incredibly effective. Whilst we know next to nothing about Jude, his helpless, self-deprecating mind-set is executed perfectly. JB’s descent into narcissism and drug abuse is pushed aside a little bit in the plot, but what little we do see of his perspective successfully consolidated my conflicted feelings about the character as a whole. Willem, by contrast, represents an idealistic and humble rise to fame, a kindness that we cannot help but love. I was rooting for Willem and his eventual match the whole way through. Our supporting characters, such as Andy and Harold, are well-rounded and likeable, despite carrying their own struggles.

About three-quarters of the way through I started to suspect that ‘A Little Life’ would not be supplying me with the happy ending that I was hoping for. Without giving any spoilers, what did happen was completely unexpected and, frankly, brutal. But retrospectively I have to admit that I don’t know how it could have ended any other way. It was bittersweet, raw and emotional – I was in tears for a large portion of the second half. This novel is long, I can’t deny that 720 pages is a time-consuming read, but it is completely worth it. If you like contemporary fiction then this novel is a must-read. If you don’t, then you probably won’t like it.

The one negative that I found in the reading of this book, was that the switch of perspectives that occur somewhat randomly throughout the narrative took me a little while to figure out. Whilst I acknowledge that this was likely intentional, the occasional interception from a different narrator (Harold) and the ‘you’ he is addressing were initially confusing. Once you get your head around it though, it’s fine!

To conclude, I have to say that ‘A Little Life’ is an essential read for anyone who loves contemporary fiction. If I had to compare it, I would liken the novel to Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ in its depiction of honest trauma, addiction and underworlds. If nothing else you’ll finish the novel thanking God for what you’ve got and wishing you had a group of friends like these.

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A Little Life: Complete!
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5 thoughts on “Book review: ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara [2015]

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