Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

‘Of course, they craved beauty, but that would have to wait. Or rather, they would have to wait for it.’

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Let me start by saying that this is, easily, my book of the year. It might be my book of the decade. In the week or so since I started it, I have done all of the following:

  • Finished it – in 24 hours, which (given its 700+ pages) should tell you something in itself
  • Cried at it
  • Had, at one point, to go and read it in the bath (you’ll see why)
  • When asked how my weekend was, started my response each time with ‘Well, I read this book…’
  • Wallowed half-awake through a three-day book hangover
  • Seriously considered abandoning the idea of reading the rest of the Booker longlist, and instead just starting this again
  • Realised I didn’t have the emotional strength to read it again just yet
  • Slept with it by my bed for a few more days, just – you know – just because
  • Finally, finally started to move on.

Just kidding on that last one.

Right, now that act of catharsis is over with:

This feels like two different books. At least. For that reason alone, it should come with a health warning. BEWARE: You get drawn into caring about these characters when they seem young and relatively carefree, and you think this is going to be a combination of youth and New York City, in the tradition of Mary McCarthy or JD Salinger or Claire Messud, and then – oh, then all hell breaks loose, frankly. (Before you conclude that I’m a total idiot, I should point out that the UK cover is significantly more subtle than the US one.) Plenty of people have written plenty of words about the more shocking aspects of the plot, and I don’t see the need to repeat them here, so instead I’m just going to pick out a few points that have stayed with me:

‘Nurture over nature’

This novel is a temple – a cathedral, actually – to the power of friendship. The central relationship of Willem and Jude is utterly co-dependent, in a way that is by turns beautiful and heartbreaking and impossibly difficult, but that I found (and I may be mocked for this) ultimately uplifting. There are other relationships, particularly Jude’s relationships (with Harold, Andy, Ana), which are deeply touching, too. By way of contrast, the blood ties in the novel are weak, malnourished:

‘‘‘But they’re your parents,” Malcolm said to him once a year or so. “You can’t just stop talking to them.” But you could, you did: he was proof of that. It was like any relationship, he felt – it took constant pruning, and dedication, and vigilance, and if neither party wanted to make the effort, why wouldn’t it wither?’

The strongest characters in the book are those which build their own families. This point is made overtly:

‘Lately, he had been wondering if codependence was such a bad thing. He took pleasure in his friendships, and it didn’t hurt anyone, so who cared if it was codependent or not? And anyway, how was a friendship any more codependent than a relationship?…Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.’

I found this statement unnecessary; the message is clear throughout the narrative. Which brings me to:

Too much of a good thing?

If I had to pick a flaw, it would probably be this one, and I know I’m not the only one to say it: On occasion, this brick-sized book hits you over the head with its message. Sometimes, the lights are a little too bright, the words a little too many, the misery piling up until you think that surely, surely, nothing else can happen to this poor boy. Afterwards, in the days after I read it when I was absorbing everything I could about the novel (a bit like stalking an ex-boyfriend’s Facebook page), I think I read an interview with Yanagihara where she said this was on purpose, and I think I understand – I actually found it quite cathartic; if Dickens was alive and living in New York, in the 21st century, then I wonder whether he might have written something like this. And just as I forgive Dickens his occasional purple prose, I can’t begrudge it here. I think the reason it’s OK is because of:

The humour

I’m fully aware that all of the above makes me sound like a hypocrite. When I reviewed ‘Lila’, one of my complaints was that it was unrelenting. Well, good Lord, the same charge could be levelled at this, and over more than twice as many pages. And yet, it’s punctuated by exchanges like this one:

‘Now he was researching his fourth book, a sequel of sorts to The American Handshake, about the Constitution, from a similar perspective.

“But only the Bill of Rights, and the sexier amendments,” Harold told him when he was interviewing him for the research assistant position.

“I didn’t know some were sexier than others,” he said.

“Of course some are sexier than others,” said Harold. “Only the eleventh, twelfth, fourteenth and sixteenth are sexy. The rest are basically the dross of politics past.”

“The thirteenth is garbage?” he asked, enjoying himself.

“I didn’t say it was garbage,” Harold said, “just not sexy.

“But I think that’s what dross means.”

Harold sighed dramatically, grabbed the dictionary off his desk, flipped it open, and studied it for a moment. “Okay, fine,” he said, tossing it back onto a heap of papers, which slid toward the edge of the surface.’

(I’m fully aware that this sort of exchange might make some people want to beat their heads against the nearest wall. But I loved it.)

And finally:

The impossible ache of comparing yourself to others

This is dotted throughout, but in particular it’s a very in-your-twenties thing to do, I think, and Yanagihara nails it. This is already a very special novel, long before you get to what you might call its central storyline. For example, look at how it captures feelings like this, of doing well and badly all at the same time:

‘Only to him and Jude would Lispenard Street be considered an achievement…but in those moments he would at times find himself thinking, This is enough. This is more than I hoped. To be in New York, to be an adult, to stand on a raised platform of wood and say other people’s words! – it was an absurd life, a not-life, a life his parents and his brother would never have dreamed for themselves, and yet he got to dream it for himself every day.
But then the feeling would dissipate, and he would be left alone to scan the arts section of the paper, and read about other people who were doing the kinds of things he didn’t even have the expansiveness, the arrogance of imagination to dream of, and in those hours the world would feel very large, and the lake very empty, and the night very black, and he would wish he were back in Wyoming, waiting at the end of the road for Hemming, where the only path he had to navigate was the one back to his parents’ house, where the porch light washed the night with honey.’

I was going to include a separate section on the beauty of the language, but this review is quite long enough already and I think the quote above will do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy copies of this book for everybody I know.

*****

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11 thoughts on “Review – A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

    1. Haha I would love to buy one for everybody – I would make it required reading! I worried about being too over-the-top positive in my review, but I just loved this!

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