This review contains spoilers.
I am still emotionally reeling from A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It is a brilliant and heartbreaking story that grows darker and more intense as it progresses.
A Little Life begins as the story of four men whose friendship first develops in college. The characters are compelling from the outset, and they become even more so as their lives unfold, individually and in the context of their relationship to each other. To say that the story gains intensity as the author tightens focus one of the friends (Jude) seems inadequate. The slowly unearthed revelations about Jude’s past are engrossing–and engender a visceral understanding of Jude’s behavior, his self-loathing, and his complex approach to relationships.
Yanagihara does not shy away from tragedy, or try to brighten it up with a “happily every after,” which I appreciate. This is not a happy story, but, for me, it is a dark and hopeful story of the relationships that sustain us. I have seen reviews that criticize the amount of tragedy Yanagihara heaped on Jude, who is the focus of most of the book. Those reviewers profess to have found it unbelievable that one character would experience so much horror in life, and they found disappointment that even Jude’s “happy” years would be fraught with self-doubt, self-harm, and anxiety. This lack of “happiness” made me sorrowful for Jude and the people who love him–as well as emotionally exhausted–but his story did not feel to me overwrought or forced. For this reader, the fact that Jude survived an unimaginable series of horrors and continued to want to participate in life and friendships is so quietly, stubbornly hopeful that I can’t help but love this story.
Yanagihara does not pull any punches, whether describing stomach turning abuse or the heartbreak of self-doubt. Her language is elegant, masterful, and simple without being spare. I cried a number of times during this novel. I felt intensely uncomfortable during Jude’s flashbacks. And, I found myself saying “Oh, Jude…” and hugging my book on more than one occasion during reading.
This was not an easy story to get through, and I felt that my discomfort as a reader in facing the revelations of Jude’s past reflected Jude’s constant fear of not being accepted. I will not recommend this book lightly or to just anyone; but, I found A Little Life a beautiful, if harrowing, story of the depth of love, understanding, and perseverance that friends who become family find in each other.
Hanya Yanagihara: “I wanted everything turned up a little too high.” Books, The Guardian, July 26th, 2015
Best Books of 2015: Hanya Yanagihara Kirkus Reviews