REVIEW: A LITTLE LIFE BY HANYA YANAGIHARA

Due to time restraints while I work on my own novel, reviews on this site will now comprise a book blurb and a short response.

A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book as visceral and challenging before. I’d been warned by friends to expect tears, to want to throw the book against the wall (because it’s confronting), to need time out. They were right. This book has outstripped any other I remember reading in years, in terms of feeling like I’d been punched in the heart. Over and over. Here’s the blurb:

When four graduates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome-but that will define his life forever.

In a remarkable and precise prose, Yanagihara has fashioned a tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.

How much can a reader take? Yanagihara explores the boundaries of readers’ limits with A Little Life, which is so much more than a story of four friends. As my friends predicted, I had to take frequent breaks, sometimes for days at a time to read something lighter, because the multiple traumas are so confronting, devastating and harrowing. Sometimes I would put the book down and stare, as my mind processed what I’d read. So why read it? Good question – it’s one my husband asked – and why wouldn’t he, when I told him some of what I’d read.

First of all, the writing is first class. It’s evocative, provocative and has that indefinable element that keeps readers going even when it’s tough. Even when you’re shaking your head, teary eyed in disbelief and sadness. There’s a line that made my crack – the one the title is drawn from: ‘But Jude … you have to show a little life’ (p417). I can’t tell you how many emotions that line, in the context it was used, made me feel.

Secondly, A Little Life explores love, whether brotherly or otherwise, in all its guises – as well as actions that are the opposite of love. And it does so in a way that you are so connected to these characters that they are real. You want to hug Jude, even though you know he will flinch; you feel admiration and awe at the patience of Willem and Harold, even though you know they are not flawless and not always patient (and also not real). It’s this profound examination of love, as well as of the darkness that lives in all of us, of mental instability and of evil, that makes this book must-read material.

The ending is inevitable, no matter how much readers (and the characters) wish otherwise, but it is also the way it had to be. An astonishing book – one of the best I’ve read.

Available from good bookshops (RRP $32.99AUD). I bought my own copy.