A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

In brief: The story of four friends from when they move to New York City after college and through their lives.

The good: It is full of emotion – you won’t believe how much until you read it (and it’s a must read).

The not-so-good: It’s so sad.

Why I chose it: Lots of good book noise from people in the US (although I like the Aussie cover better).

Year: 2015

Pages: 720

Publisher: Picador

Setting: Primarily New York City, but really all round the world.

My rating: 10 out of 10

If you only read one chunkster of a book this year (or hell, only one book this year), please, please, make it A Little Life. This book is a brick of emotion, beautifully rendered and utterly heartbreaking. You will cry multiple times but you will be left with the memory of a story that makes you wonder at why people can be so cruel and how important the love of friends is. Please don’t be put off by it being on the Man Booker Prize longlist either – this is not a book that fits the stereotype of prize lists, it is a book that everyone should read and is entirely readable. (If it doesn’t win the Man Booker, I am going to be terrifically disappointed).

The premise of A Little Life is simple – the story of four friends who all move to New York after finishing college/graduate school, following them throughout their lives. There’s JB, a talented artist who is also a little too big for his boots. Malcolm is an architect, unsure of what path to take in life at the risk of upsetting his family. Willem is going to be an actor – he’s had it tough growing up but he’s determined to make it. Then there’s Jude.

Oh, Jude.

You will love Jude. Jude is somewhat of an enigma to the others, but they all protect him fiercely. He’s a little different, a little younger than the others and never says anything about his past. He always wears long sleeved and is scared to get too close. But he is utterly brilliant and completely lovable. Jude suffers from a terrific lack of self-esteem and self-worth, something his friends try to help him with not very successfully. Jude is truly a good man, yet so many horrible things have happened to him that you can’t help but being angry at the terrible injustice. Jude’s friends help him when he’s in the grip of terrible physical pain from a car accident and try to show him he’s loved to heal his spiritual wounds. Little by little over the course of the book, the reader finds out about Jude’s past. It’s not pretty, it’s disgustingly awful. You will be angry and you will cry. The injustice of it all will leave you reeling.

Despite the pain of this book, the sadness and cruelty that seeps through its pages, you will not be able to put it down. I can’t explain it. Many horrible, ugly cry scenes appear in this book, yet it is compulsive reading. Despite the size, the story is not too long nor padded out. It’s just right. It is a dense, intense read but every word is lovingly crafted and the writing is just beautiful. It’s a masterpiece. Hanya Yanagihara has made something beautiful from horrifying events and it’s like an f-you to the bad people out there. You can be loved, you can be a worthy person.

If only Jude thought so.

The book moves from JB’s head to Willem’s and then Jude’s. It’s the parts that are written from Jude’s perspective that are the most mesmerising. I think they are important as we can see his reasoning (however flawed) that he’s not worthy of life and love. It’s interesting that we never see into Malcolm’s head – perhaps because he has had the most stable, loving life out of the four but he’s also the blandest. The other characters are richly detailed down to the colour of their socks, but Malcolm is more of background character, briefly sketched. It doesn’t detract from the story at all, I just found it an interesting point. The only thing I didn’t really like about A Little Life is the US cover because – it’s heartbreaking and the picture reminds me of Jim Carrey. I like the Australian cover much better.

The story is brutal, full of trigger warnings but it’s ultimately rewarding as after finishing it you feel stronger, like you’ve survived something. Hanya Yanagihara is a master of fiction writing and quite possibly the creator of the Great American Novel. Read it.

6 thoughts on “A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Add yours

  1. Beautiful review Sam. My favorite book of 2015, and honestly, I can’t imagine ever finding a book that I love more.

  2. It’s an incredible gut wrenching, compulsive obsessive read isn’t it?
    I hadn’t picked up on the lack of Malcolm first person narration. That is a curious aside indeed.

    I did like the ah-ha moment about a third of the way in that showed why the U.S. cover was chosen. I read somewhere that our cover was chosen to highlight the NY-ness of the story as this was thought to be more a selling point than the tortured soul story.

    Will it be shortlisted or not? Not long to wait now:-)

    1. I was so happy about the short listing! Crossing fingers…

      I agree that the US cover is more relevant to the story, but I don’t know if I would have picked it up blindly off the shelf with that cover. Try as I may to fight it, good covers attract me!

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