A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is one of those books that never leaves you. Long after you have turned that last page, you find yourself reflecting on the characters like they’re old friends you haven’t thought of in a while. Because despite the pain, trauma and heartbreak this novel tells a beautiful tale of love and friendship. But please don’t be fooled as it’s not an enjoyable book and by no means is it an easy read; but it delivers a message that will resonate like no other work of fiction ever could.
A Little Life tells the story of Jude, over a 30-year span. We meet Jude, along with Malcom, Jb & Willem as they start their post-college life in New York. Jude tells his story always, however, holding us at arms length, like he does with those closest to him. Jude’s story is astonishingly traumatic, and Yanagihara tells it with an unflinching honestly, showing a real understanding of the lasting consequences of exposure to abuse.
What makes the reader so eager to keep reading, and also not want the book to end, is how seamlessly Yanagihara threads through snatches of happiness in Jude’s life. It certainly is a very sad story, but that is not all it is. The characterisation is flawless and effortlessly demonstrates amazing powers of observation, empathy and understanding.
The prose is also phenomenally written in a raw, unobtrusive way. It allows you to become completely submerged in Jude’s world, without any interruptions or literary tricks. Yanagihara’s writing is welcoming, thoughtful, intelligent and delivered with absolute grace and poise.
One criticism Yanagihara did receive was for the length of the book and over-detailing of certain elements, such as the development of JB and Malcolm’s characters at the beginning. However, from my perspective, I adored every word written and feel that the thorough character building meant that I understood and related to them as much as I do to my closest, real life, friends.
For me, Yanagihara’s devotion to detail served to perfectly enhance the intensity and disorientation of the story in a very relatable way. The book is long, complex and unapologetically challenging at times. But the messages is very simple – be kind to every one you meet, for you do not, and might never, know their full story.