A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Years ago, when I was working full-time in an office, I did one those personality profile exercises – the Myers-Briggs of the day. It sticks in my mind because the results of this particular profiling included ‘allowable weaknesses’ which acknowledged that the flip-side of certain personality strengths were particular weaknesses. For example, if you’re a highly organised person who likes to plan ahead you’re less likely to be flexible or good at ‘living in the moment’ (and that’s okay).

How does this relate to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life? Well, I’m granting this brilliant, immense and harrowing novel some ‘allowable weaknesses’.

It’s the story of four men and their lives over the decades after leaving college.

“…he understood that friendship was a series of exchanges: of affections, of time, sometimes of money, always of information.”

Although the story is told from various point-of-view, it focuses predominantly on Jude – he’s an orphan, a lawyer, a mathematician, a victim, a baker, a friend, a ‘cutter’, a person with a physical disability. He’s complex, as are the other characters – it’s astonishing how intricately Yanagihara has depicted these people. And it’s because of this that I’m allowing some weaknesses – how likely is it that four men who met at college would remain such close, devoted friends? And how likely is it that these four friends would all achieve such success in their careers? Probably unlikely but allow it, for it gives Yanagihara the opportunity to create an almost fairytale-like narrative, with themes of good versus evil, and loyalty versus betrayal woven throughout.

Secondly, I wasn’t left breathless by the writing. I wasn’t re-reading passages or savouring sentences. But there is a pureness, a truthfulness to Yanagihara’s words that I really admire.

“I have never been one of those people…who feels that the love one has for a child is somehow a superior love, one more meaningful, more significant, and grander than any other… But it is a singular love, because it is a love whose foundation is not physical attraction, or pleasure, or intellect, but fear. You have never known fear until you have a child and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent…”

And she does have some very eloquent imagery –

“…your dreams for a career … would recede … a melting history as quiet as a briquette of ice sliding into a warm bath.”

“At five thirty, the light was perfect: buttery and dense and fat somehow, swelling the room … into something expansive and hopeful.”

“His persistent nostalgia depressed him, aged him, and yet he couldn’t stop feeling that the most glorious years, the years when everything seemed drawn in fluorescents, were gone.”

When it comes, the betrayal – for there is always a betrayal in a story about close friends – is so simply executed, it’s perfect. It’s brutal and deeply hurtful and I couldn’t help but be impressed by how easily Yanagihara twists the story.

“…he reminds himself, loneliness is not hunger, or deprivation, or illness: it is not fatal. Its eradication is not owed to him.”

This is a relatively short review given the length of the book (720 pages). Who should read it? I’m not sure – I finished feeling wrung out and very sad. Readers should be aware that there are many references to sexual and physical abuse throughout the book, as well as references to suicide and self-mutilation. So yeah, it’s not for everyone.

5/5 At one point during this book, I cried for an hour. AN HOUR.

Jude bakes.

“…he knew they would be devoured mindlessly, swallowed whole with beer, and that they would begin the New Year finding crumbs of those beautiful cookies everywhere, trampled and stamped into the tiles.”


27 responses

  1. I didn’t cry but i did have a huge knot in my stomach every time I picked up the book. Not all the characters were well formed – Jude and William were certainly but the other friends felt a bit undefined. And yes some of the writing wasn’t great. But on the whole this was an extraordinary book.

    • There were moments where I felt that characters were added (and then promptly) forgotten for convenience – a bit lazy perhaps, but again, an allowable weakness given that Jude, Willem, and Harold, Andy and JB were so well formed (I include JB because although his character didn’t appear much, his jealousy was well done and his ‘betrayal’ was a highpoint for me).

  2. I have never cried as much as I did reading that book. I read it 3 months ago and still cannot stop thinking about it. Very hard to recommend to others though.

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  4. I’ve been put off by the size of the book, even though I’ve heard such good things. I’m glad to read your review. Maybe once things in my real life quiet down a bit, I’ll carve out time to finally read this.

    • Quite honestly, I usually only read a book of this size once a year (last year it was The Goldfinch). That said, it doesn’t make sense because it really is only the equivalent of reading two average novels – I guess it’s just the mental gearing up!

  5. I’m a hard nut – not many books make me cry and this one didn’t either. But I did gasp out loud and hold the book to my chest as I muttered “good grief, good grief” several times.

    Your “allowable weaknesses” is perfect. A great tag. Because this book is compelling, unforgettable, difficult, beautiful, flawed and it has got lots of people talking about it.

    Great review.

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  9. I decided very early on not to read this, too damaging to our energetic fields, and I have to work with mine, so kind of like food, I’m careful about what I consume. This book doesn’t need me to read it, and I have no desire to know of the depths it will plumb.

    • It’s probably the first book that I’ve rated very highly but have not recommended to a single person! I think, for reasons that you obviously recognised, it’s not a book to be picked up lightly.

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