Is There Life After Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life?
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, A finalist for the National Book Award, and winner of the Kirkus Prize, A Little Life was one of the most awarded and talked about novels of 2015. Simultaneously difficult to endure and difficult to put down, A Little Life deserves all of its praise. Though getting through this novel was shocking and painful (highly recommending you this book would be similar to pummeling you with a ton of bricks), its beautiful storytelling makes the pain of reading it worth it. Sometimes the saddest stories affect us in the best ways.
A Little Life follows the lives of four college friends: Malcolm, an architect, JB the artist, Willem the actor, and Jude, a disabled and enigmatic lawyer who refuses to share anything about his troubled past. The novel's 720 pages (not so little after all) span decades, following the quartet from their twenties to their fifties. We see them move to New York in search of success, start relationships, and develop their individual careers. More importantly, we see their friendships grow and drift apart. Despite their differences, however, the group's adoration and curiosity towards Jude anchors their friendship, and together, the characters grapple with the inconvenient truths of life and how to deal with them.
This is not your quintessential "New York novel" about opportunity and the American dream. Instead of writing about hope, Yanagihara explores themes of abuse and exploitation. At times the story became so unbearably sad that I had to put it down, step away, and remind myself that the tragedies in this novel are separate from reality. Other times, the sadness of the novel kept me reading well into the night, waiting for the few moments when the character's lives looked bright.
Despite being a heavy book (both in subject matter and in physical weight), Yanagihara writes with honesty and clarity. Through A Little Life, Yanagihara emerges as a master of human emotion, both in the way she moves her readers and in how she portrays the emotions of her characters. Reading this book feels like living a life truly separate from your own. Words blur into images and suddenly you find yourself sitting in the corner of a tiny, ugly New York apartment, listening in on the conversation of four unlikely friends.
And the friendships are what truly make A Little Life so memorable. With very few female character's, Yanagihara delves into the world of male identity and psyche. Even within platonic relationships, the four friends share tender and sweet moments throughout the novel, the types of moments that popular media rarely depicts between male friends. Yanagihara's exploration of male friendship challenges the stigmas surrounding men and how they express emotion.
"Wasn't friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?"
My only qualm with this novel is that at times, the abuse depicted in the novel became copious and overwhelming. Thus, if you are at all interested in picking up this novel, I would first consider whether or not you can stomach a large amound of graphic physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. That being said, the majority of the novel handles trauma and abuse carefully and realistically.
Some books have the power to stay with you, whether it be because of their timeless messages or because of their beloved characters. A Little Life has both. Its vibrant, self realized characters and themes about friendship will keep me, and others, coming back to this story over and over again. Only a week after finishing the novel, I re-read the final chapter and allowed myself to cry again at the beauty and sadness that is Jude, and his little life.
Feautred image from here.