Book review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I’m reposting this review of A Little Life, written before I had a blog, ahead of publication of Hanya Yanagihara’s To Paradise, which I will be reviewing nearer to publication.

A Little Life begins with a kind of innocence. Four male graduates are making their lives in New York. The story draws you in (or possibly back) to an age when friendship matters more than anything. There are parties, humour, the texture of daily life. The narrative voice is gentle, the tone rhythmic and soothing.

They are starting careers, finding a purpose, not earning much though they don’t much care, coming to terms with their diverse backgrounds, wondering about identity and privilege and purpose. Only slowly do you realise that Jude, who keeps all his secrets, is dealing with something much darker. Jude’s background is so painful as to be unbearable but the book is engrossing and involving and, like his friends, you want to know because you care about him, or maybe just because we always want to know.

We romanticise friendships perhaps even more than love. Relationships may end but we think we will always be there for our friends. But the burden of caring about someone as deeply damaged as Jude, the thought that failing him only once could have tragic consequences, how many of us could do that? If you turn away, or wilfully refuse to see what is in front of you, are you callous or just protecting yourself?

A Little Life subtly shows how people move on, they change, and yet they are shaped by their experiences. There are subtle patterns and repetitions woven through the characters’ lives. The book asks, not just of Jude but of everyone, how far can people change? Are some wounds so deep that they can never be healed?

A Little Life is specifically located in New York but the time is never explicit. There is something hazy and ahistorical about it. At the beginning it feels like the indefinite present but thirty years on it still feels the same. And the characters, as they get richer and ever more successful, seem to live in a glossy world of beautiful homes and international travel and gorgeous food.

The depth of Jude’s suffering and the affluence of his later life have led some people to question the ‘realism’ of the story. Most of us will never experience either extreme, but we know both exist (even if we don’t want to acknowledge it). Both Jude’s achievements and his pain come from the same source and this is what makes his past so difficult to escape, what makes it always present.

A Little Life is rich and troubling and challenging and, long as it is at over 700 pages, I didn’t want it to end.

I received a copy of A Little Life from the publisher via Netgalley.
View A Little Life on Goodreads

For a thought-provoking perspective on A Little Life, I enjoyed Parul Sehgal’s case against the trauma plot from the New Yorker.

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