Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life” – Review

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These days, books are getting longer, and so it’s become nearly inevitable to stumble upon a well-reviewed, brick-sized tome that you’re somewhat leery to read but anxious to do so. I’m not one to quit reading something; I try to persevere, even if it’s not something I particularly enjoy (I hope to find some redeeming quality).

So, after reading such great responses to Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, a 720-page epic (and a finalist for both the Man Booker and National Book Award prizes; sadly, it lost in both categories to Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings and Adam Johnson’s Fortune Smiles, respectively—both of which I’m hoping to read this year), I decided to purchase it on a whim, trusting those reviewers that I’d be mesmerized through all of those pages.

And, let me tell you, those reviewers weren’t wrong—not at all.

The novel charts the lives of four friends—Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm—over a few decades, from their college years to their fifties. The main focus, however, is on Jude, a quiet man with a mysterious and haunting past that dictates, or at the very least informs, his every action. I won’t give anything away here as much of the novel revolves around discovering Jude’s complexities. I’ll just say that it rivals—maybe even bests—anything Dickens ever wrote for his child characters.

Never have I so willingly endured such a heart-wrenching journey. Jude endures so much austerity and love. There are several passages that feel like a punch to the gut, but, through all that, rays of hope filter through. Some of these passages are difficult to read through, and many may see the harshness, the severity, the multitude of these sections as overtly melodramatic, or even soap opera-like. I disagree. Each individual event combines to create his complexities. His reactions to each event may seem aggravating—I won’t lie, I reacted with numerous head/eye rolls, as well as “Poor Jude”—but they make sense. In gradually piecing together his psychology, everything comes together; you see his struggles, his reactions, and confirm these to be an accurate depiction of his (little) life.

Willem, JB, and Malcolm are given less attention, especially the latter two. Though, in Yanagihara’s defense, this story is about Jude. (Though, my only qualm is that we learn very little about Malcolm, as he’s given so little page-time.) Willem plays an important role, though, as Jude’s main supporter and friend (among other occupations). Through the ups and downs of friendship, each caters to Jude’s development, and, in turn, their own. It’s a rocky road for this set of friends, but it’s a road to walk on. It’s truly worth it.

As I read the novel, I began reflecting on my own life. I saw a bit of myself in Jude, and I think many will (though I hope many will never experience the hardships he experienced). That’s the novel’s biggest asset. Because Jude is such a rich and complicated character, he seems so universal, even though his life is so specific.

I’m intentionally keeping this vague, as I don’t want to spoil too much. But I will say this: A Little Life is an incredibly exceptional book. It’s been years since I’ve read something so impactful. Don’t let the page count deter you, either, as it’s well worth your time. It’s challenging, thought-provoking, depressing, hopeful, and deeply rewarding. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is one of the best books I’ve ever read.

It’s currently available in hardcover, and will be available as a paperback on January 26, 2016.

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