Review: “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara

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Our friend Katya reviews one of the most talked about books of 2015. Warning: This review contains spoilers.
TL;DR: Worth every praise it gets, but TRIGGERING AS ALL!

(note to editor: You might want to insert a read more/spoiler alert)

CW: Discussions on child abuse, suicide, depression. Also, possibly spoilers.

If there is anything that my years on Goodreads taught me, it is that there is a very thin line between objective criticism and emotional response, and that while both have merits, it’s important to know where you are coming from. This is not limited to, but especially true for the times when you review a highly talked-about, critically-praised book. So, for the sake of context, here’s a little background.

I’m currently writing a PhD on risk and social media, but I’ve also volunteered as a counsellor for a major children’s charity. It goes without saying that anything to do with child abuse and authority figures taking advantage of their status will hit me on a visceral level. Add to that some personal experiences with bullying and rejection, not to mention general struggles with belonging and success as a Millennial… yeah, “A Little Life” hit me like a falcon punch. (Something that I think is a common reaction to Hanya Yanagihara’s books.)

It’s worth noting, however, that this synopsis isn’t a 100% accurate representation for the story inside. While there are four main characters with distinct personalities and journeys, the story is, always and without fail, about Jude. Specifically, it’s a story of how Jude tries to make a life for himself after a horrific childhood, but is constantly set back by violations, betrayals, and tragedies big and small, as well as his own fear of connecting with people. Even when the focus turns to Malcolm, J.B., and Willem, their stories are still tightly interwoven with Jude’s.

I’m not gonna lie – there were many, many times throughout this book that I had to put it down and just breathe. Other times, I had to skim through because I couldn’t stand to focus on the words. However elegant Hanya Yanagihara’s prose is, however important the subject matter is, I could not stand it. And there were at least a dozen scenes where I wanted to scream: JUST GET THERAPY ALREADY! Even when the characters were getting therapy. Or convincing each other (read: Jude) to get therapy. I couldn’t help myself – even when I knew it’s never as simple as seeing a shrink, I still wanted to strangle the characters (read: Jude) for stubbornly refusing to get better.

But now, having read the book, I think that was the point.

The narrative around mental illness in developed countries is a very stringent one. We are brought up to despise weakness, but we can on ocasion sympathise with sufferers. They don’t know any better, right? Or they cannot access services for one reason or another? Surely if we made resources available to them….
Eh. No.
The sad state of affairs is that while there are a lot of barriers to people getting help, the reality is that the illness itself makes it impossible to open up to others and get support. Or, worse still, the belief that we must be responsible for our own happiness and health makes us deny that we have a problem. Or, we view our privilege as a reason to not complain. “So many have it worse…”
Jude doesn’t start off privileged and affluent, but he strives towards that, and achieves it. But he struggles with himself still. Contrary to the idea that plucky protagonists overcome difficulties with the power of resilience, Jude’s story is a harsh reminder that we all have a breaking point. And he gets broken several times over.
But he is not without agency, which is an important point to consider. Jude isn’t the world’s underdog, to be beaten and humiliated by horrible others. Rather, he is a man who believes himself worthy of abuse and suffering. He is someone who does not see the point in breaking the circle of violence. He gets close, but never manages, and it is heartbreaking, but also true.
Yes, “A Little Life” is not an easy read. It’s also a daunting one, clocking at over 700 pages in paperback (I got pulled at the airport to have my luggage searched because of it!) Mind you, once you start reading you will only put it down to cry. But it is not a book without faults. Structurally, it starts off like 4 stories growing together, but as I mentioned, it’s a book about Jude. Malcolm’s story gets dropped halfway through chapter 2. JB’s story picks up on and off but it’s terribly uneven. Willem is developed most but it’s because his story is so interwoven with Jude’s. And then a character is introduced 1/3 into the story and he ends up narrating sections and sections of the rest. It all serves a purpose, but it makes for an uneven read, with charactrs and events looking like props for Jude’s story rather than themes in of themselves.
Again, this book is worthy of every praise it received and every heart it breaks. But it’s a story not about four friends, but a man being broken. From my little nest of tissues on the floor, I caution: know what you’re getting in for.

1 COMMENT

  1. Lovely review! This was one of my favorites and most anticipated last year, and I get what you’re saying about having to put it down to breathe. It took me ten days to read this book because I kept having to put it down just to have time to recuperate from what I was reading…and yes, breathe.

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