There’s a certain look people give you when you tell them you’re reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life.
They wince, as though they’re in pain. Their eyes say, “I’m so sorry,” while they shake their head, sometimes accompanied by an audible groan.
It’s because they know you’re about to confront parts of human experience we spend our whole lives attempting to avoid. They know you will find yourself crying in bed, contemplating the meaning of life in the shower, and – at times – putting the book down because you have no other choice.
They know nothing they can say will help, and most of all, they know that what you’re about to read won’t ever leave you.
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Written over 18 months, Yanagihara follows the lives of four men; Jude, Willem, JB And Malcolm. We meet them at college, in their early twenties, and follow them into their thirties, forties, and late fifties. It is Jude, however, who we become closest to.
We know something has happened to him – something very bad – but we do not know what. Our imagination travels to dark places, entertaining a myriad of possibilities. As time goes on, we begin to discover what has happened to Jude, and the greatest revelation is that it is not one thing, but many.
It’s a world we rarely see in novels. We see ambition and despair coexist, with Jude living in both the past and the present. Time is not linear, it is messy and convoluted, with Jude’s past perpetually haunting him.
A Little Life brings up the question of who your life belongs to. Do you owe your life story to your friends? What is just yours to keep? And can you ever truly know someone if there are secrets they’re keeping from you?
The themes of sexual, physical and psychological abuse, self harm, friendship, sexual identity, chronic pain, trauma and recovery – if such a thing even exists – are each explored in enormous depth through A Little Life, making us feel by the end that we have indeed somehow lived someone else’s little life.
There are many points throughout that Yanagihara could have chosen to end it, providing her protagonist with the resolution he so deserved. But that is not what life looks like.
In our increasingly anxious world, we spend so much of our time trying to disengage. We do not want to feel the unpleasant, or see the suffering that deep down we know exists. But A Little Life thrusts it upon us, forcing the reader to acknowledge that all is not well. Death and abuse and despair and depression and self-hatred are all part of the human experience and you, too, will experience them.
It presents a level of sadness difficult to comprehend, but elicits a response so visceral and so true, it can only be good for us.
After one reads A Little Life, they won’t be the same again. You’re exposed to something you cannot unsee.
You are left with a sense that in every little life – some more than others – there is suffering.
And none of us are promised a happy ending.
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