It’s been hard to write about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Hard to find words for how affecting I found the novel, how much I appreciated it. I really, really, emphatically, as loud as I’ve ever claimed it, think this is a brilliant novel. It’s not worth it to have best lists, I get it. But if I was someone who kept best lists (okay, I do) this one would be near the top. I can’t think of a book in recent (or any?) memory that has lived so fully in my mind, has occupied such a significant place in my thinking while – and after – I was reading it. Note I didn’t say “enjoyed” – it’s a hard story to live within, and you really will live within it (and for days and weeks after you finish it – it’s still following me around). It’s a long book, but you won’t notice the length, except maybe the anxiety of realizing you only have half of it left, the worry that eventually the last page will come. It’s a book that wants you to feel deeply and succeeds through masterful – truly – narration and character development in making you feel so. much.
Don’t let tough subject matter (‘child abuse’ hardly covers it) dissuade you from reading; steady yourself and commit. I’ll freely admit that there were parts of this novel that I tried to read with my hands covering my eyes (turns out you can’t read much with your eyes closed). Many moments I had to put the book down and walk away (but, of course, I couldn’t really walk away because the characters were alive in my mind). Many, many nights I was up well past my bedtime defiant of the hour because I couldn’t leave the living, vivid world of the story. I dreamed of the characters. I still dream of them. I am stunned by the ending.
I don’t want to say much about the content because I really, really, emphatically, as louds as I’ve ever claimed it, want you to read the book, too. What can I tell you that will give you enough to get you past the 700 page hurdle, the ridiculous idea you have that you don’t have time for such a fat novel (you don’t have time to *not* be reading this book)? It’s plot isn’t very plotty – it’s pretty well ‘life’ (which isn’t the same thing as saying nothing ‘happens’ – there are plenty of plot events and conflict to propel the reading, just that you won’t encounter explosion! plot twist! incredible thing!) with the steady unfolding of life, and the looping of memory that life brings. It’s a book that puts you in lavish, rich (i.e expensive) settings and lets you wander around with the 1% in a way that makes you a little envious, but mostly glad that the characters get to have success.
Digression for enthusiastic excitement about the way the novel deals with narrative voice: So the book follows four young men: Malcolm, JB, Willem and Jude from the point they begin college forward through life. The narration shifts (I’m not going to say how or when, because part of the magic of the thing is in how and when) in such a way that you – the reader – are doing the work that the other characters in the novel are in figuring out Jude’s story (so much of the novel is about figuring out Jude). You’re trying to earn Jude’s trust just as the characters are, trying to build up enough of a relationship with him that he’ll let you in and tell you about his past. I CANNOT FIGURE OUT HOW TO TELL YOU IN WRITING THE GENIUS OF THE NARRATION-TIED-TO-THEME. And then you worry so much about Jude while you’re inhabiting the narrative point of view of those around him. So much. How can you – the reader – protect Jude when you’re perpetually on the outside (oh wait -t his is the same question his loved ones are asking: how can they protect him when they’re always kept a little at bay)? How can you find out enough about him to keep him safe when you’re not the author of his story?
It’s a novel about friendship and love and what makes a ‘family’ (spoiler: it’s not genes). It’s a book that will have you reconsidering ideas of memory, trauma and identity. A book about art and the artist (that is also the best expression of the art of the novel). A book about walking and the city.
I want to do some more yelling in all caps about how good it is, but I think I’ve convinced you. A few caveats because that’s a responsible thing to do:
-Does the book walk a fine line between reveling in and exploring victimhood and agency?Yep. Does it go too far: tell me in the comments. I’m not yet sure.
-Does it make the glory of the 1% living just a little too appealing? Is it another book about being rich in New York? Yes. Just yes.
That’s it. Let me end with a quote from a review in The Guardian:
“Reading, of course, is a solo activity. But occasionally a book forces demands on you that are so immense you need consolation from others. You urge your book club to read it (or you form a book club to that end); you post status updates, you tweet; you give it to other people to read, burdening them so that you’re not left alone with this thing.”
Please, please read this one.