A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, Review by Corinne Donnelly
Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life has received quite a lot of publicity in the literary world over the past few months. It was even recently nominated for many prestigious book awards, including the Man Booker Prize (shortlist), the National Book Award for Fiction (finalist), and the Kirkus Prize in Fiction, which it won. Yanagihara’s second novel is a beast, clocking in at a little over 700 pages, but if you’re up for the challenge, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful language, captivating characters, and an onslaught of emotions ranging from sheer joy to the deepest of sorrows.
A Little Life begins with the introduction of the four main characters, Jude, Willem, Malcolm, and JB. The four young men have graduated from college and are now celebrating their newfound adulthood in New York. As the narrative moves forward, the reader glimpses into each of their heads, as they all narrate different sections of the novel. All four characters possess very distinct personalities and have been shaped by incredibly different upbringings. The plot is heavily character-driven, and focuses predominantly on Jude’s mysterious past, which he obstinately keeps secret from his friends.
Structurally, the novel is split up into multiple sections encompassing different periods of the protagonists’ lives. Each section has a few chapters from different character perspectives. This allows the reader to personally invest in all of their life experiences without leaving any of the young men behind. It also provides a certain level of suspense, as the reader learns Jude’s secrets alongside his friends, since Jude chooses to slowly unveil their horrors in flashbacks spanning the entirety of the novel.
Many themes run through the novel, but the most important ones strike me as friendship as a form of salvation, the destruction and building up of character, and self-preservation. Every character, Jude in particular, fights an uphill battle against his circumstances. No-one is immune from hardship, despite social standing, race, and sexuality. As the pages fly by and decades pass, Yanagihara emphasizes how personalities are fluid and shaped by the people we encounter, the relationships we let blossom, and the experiences thrust upon us. The novel also excellently portrays how your past can shape your future in many ways, but that hard work, luck, and healthy relationships can make an impact too.
As a disclaimer, please be aware that the book deals with incredibly heavy subjects, including abuse, self-harm, sexual assault, and many other horrific topics. Yanigahara writes about these subjects very well, but also in extreme detail. To be frank, it was a little too much for me at times, and I shed many angry tears. Be prepared to feel deeply for all of the characters and please, please carry a box of tissues. You can thank me later.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a life-changing read. You will laugh, you will sob, and you may even toss the book against the wall out of sheer frustration, but you will gain a greater insight into the lives of four fascinating, intelligent, and remarkable young men. Fictional they may be, but they will become very real to you, and it will be difficult to start reading another novel after this one.