A Little Life is a novel by American Hanya Yanagihara, published in 2015 by Doubleday. It garnered a lot of very good reviews early on, and was shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and the 2015 National Book Award for Fiction.
The story starts with a group of four friends — Malcolm, Willem, JB, and Jude — living and making their way in the tough world of New York City after graduating from university (or college, if you’re American). They met in university as roommates, and we get flashbacks interspersed with the present timeline to show us how their relationships with each other are individually, and how they connect as a group. They each get a moment in the spotlight briefly in that less-than-a-hundred-page chapter, then the lens tightens and focuses on Jude, who becomes the central character. This entire novel is a bildungsroman of all four characters, yes, but most essentially of Jude, who has gone to literal hell and is trying to live — just simply live.
It’s a painful read — painful because of what Jude was made to endure by the author, who has said in interviews that she did push the boundaries of what human beings are meant to go through. I started a little slow, trying to establish all the characters in my head when they were being introduced, but once the novel set on Jude, I was off, turning and turning the pages. Hanya Yanagihara writes in a most accessible way; I do not need to exert extra effort to concentrate to understand what she is saying through her story, but it does not mean it lacked any meaning or beauty.
What I found odd was how I felt I needed to get a good grasp of who these men are at the beginning of the story, when most of them just fell away as it progressed. Only Willem retained a regular appearance, and when I finished the book and had some time to step away from all the emotions, I thought I spent quite some mental energy trying to make sure who’s who when it didn’t matter that much anyway.
What struck me the most in this story was not the abuse (trigger warning for those readers who may relive any experiences of self-harm, and physical and/or sexual abuse), although it did make my stomach and chest tighten at the same time while going through those passages. What made me tear up in the middle of a cafe in central London during lunch hour was when there was a loss of a loved one involved. That one I really felt right through my heart. The dullness and yet piercing pain, the emptiness, the heartbreak…dear lord, my eyes were proper watering. I had to surreptitiously catch the tears forming before they fell, else someone might inquire, “you okay, luv?” and I’d be so embarrassed to say why. (Yes, don’t be fooled by those articles — Londoners can be nice!)
Despite the darkness and pain this book has, I still highly recommend it to anyone. It was the book of the year for me, amongst everything I read last year. I found Jude to be a strong and admirable character, who tried so hard to be normal and to be present and alive, when his experiences could drive anyone to suicide — and you’d actually say ‘can you blame him?’ if they do. It isn’t a happy book, but it read very much like a life, an ordinary person’s life, where the dark days, whether they be numerous and prolonged, are sprinkled with periods of happiness and love — beautiful memories with friends and family.
“If I were a different kind of person, I might say that this whole incident is a metaphor for life in general: things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”
– Hanya Yanagihara (A Little Life)
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Have you read it? How did you feel about the ending? How about the “dark” parts? Did you have trouble with it?