It is hard to describe how reading A Little Life made me feel. This novel is, to sum up 800+ pages in a single word, sorrowful. There is nothing optimistic about this novel, there is no bright, shining kernel of truth that makes the trauma and sadness easier to swallow. It is a novel full of pain and suffering, and one that almost wallows in it, not trying to lift the reader into any more positive circumstances.
I now understand more fully a word my professors in university often used to describe literature and our reactions to it: visceral. I always knew in theory that a visceral reaction to a text implied great emotion and feeling, and meant that the reader had temporarily put aside their more intellectual assessments to let feelings overwhelm them. I have always been this type of reader – one who favours emotion over logic, who prefers to talk about how I feel about a novel rather than dissecting it with scientific vigour – and I was always so happy when lectures in my English classes tended toward sentimentality rather than structured analysis.
But I don’t know that I’ve ever been quite so touched by a novel as I was by A Little Life. Don’t get me wrong, I have read my fair share of upsetting novels in the past – The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson immediately comes to mind, and it does, actually, have a similar narrative style to A Little Life – but I haven’t read one so moving and painful in quite some time. A Little Life follows the friendship of four men, but it zeroes in pretty quickly on the relationship (romantic and otherwise) between Willem and Jude. Jude, as many reviewers before me have noted, is the heart and soul of the novel, though, and much of the text is devoted to investigating Jude’s childhood traumas, including a whole host of disgusting circumstances that made me physically nauseous to read about. Reading Jude’s story is not for the faint of heart, especially as it documents in graphic detail horrific stories of childhood sexual abuse, and it is downright hard to read at points. So many times, I felt like I wanted to stop reading, to put the book down, and yet I didn’t because for whatever reason I felt compelled to keep going. That is surely a testament to how talented Hanya Yanagihara is as a writer, and there is no doubt that the prose flows and is highly poetic and beautiful. There is such a jarring contrast between the subject matter and the gorgeous words Yanagihara uses to describe the events…but the result is that the reader is urged to move forward and, ultimately, does, even despite every instinct not to.
There’s not much I can really say about A Little Life without repeating myself endlessly (it is painful, sorrowful, sad, depressing, traumatic, serious, touching, heartbreaking…blah blah blah), so I’ll just leave it at, it’s brilliant. Many reviewers have disagreed, and that is totally fine, but for me, it was a moving experience in every way and I feel like a better person for having read the story. I am proud that I’ve read it as I feel it is a modern work of great literature, a contemporary classic, and I truly can’t find any fault with Yanagihara’s writing or characterization or pacing or any of it. Yes, many readers have felt that the novel is too long and a bit repetitive, but I am a lover of Dickens and John Irving, and so I am used to meaningful repetition, to long novels that say much and say it so well. So, I cannot fault Yanagihara for writing a large novel because, the bottom line is, she wrote a great one.
I would urge anyone who is okay with deep, thoughtful and heavy literature to pick this one up because it is a read you won’t soon forget.
“[H]e was worried because to be alive was to worry. Life was scary; it was unknowable. Even Malcolm’s money wouldn’t immunize him completely. Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them.”
❥❥❥❥❥ (out of 5)
Girl with a Green Heart