There is a LOT of buzz and hype around A Little Life, the second novel from American author Hanya Yanagihara, which would usually put me off – but this book genuinely appealed to me and I felt a genuine sense of excitement and possibility about it. I was lucky enough to read an early copy before the UK publication date in August, which I am very grateful for. I am glad I read A Little Life, but it was indeed a challenge – mostly because of its difficulty, its darkness, its sadness.
When I was making notes about the book, I found the best way to order things in my head was to make some lists. I’m going to try to convert the lists into a post now. Bear with me. This is not an easy book.
Firstly the good things. One of my favourite things about A Little Life was the depiction of that life – the vivid characters felt completely real, as if you were reading about real people. I also loved the way that time is used in the novel. Great stretches of it pass, but it doesn’t drag, and Yanagihara clearly has a great understanding of how memory works and how our memories always have a place in the present, and always affect the present. A lot of the time I found myself thinking, are we ever 100% in the present? Isn’t there always some part of us that is back in the past, suffering and waiting to be happy? That is certainly the case for at least one of the characters. I found the use of memory and time very natural, easy to follow, and true to life. It demonstrated Yanagihara’s intelligence and skill as a writer, and her understanding of human life.
I loved her emotional intelligence and sensitivity. This is one of the most emotional books I have ever read, for the characters and for the reader. Our central character is Jude, someone who has suffered incredible levels of abuse and trauma, and whose head we spend an awful lot of time in. His experience is extreme, but anyone who has experienced depression will recognise something in Jude’s thoughts and feelings. This is a tricky thing to achieve, and Yanagihara does so with skill and sensitivity. She understands that sometimes life is hard just because it is.
I also loved the sections narrated by Harold, Jude’s mentor. His is the only first-person narrative and the sporadic sections serve, I think, as a little break for the reader, a step back from the story to see it from someone else’s point of view. They are beautifully written and full of life. Jude’s story can be very overwhelming, so it is great to step back and see him from the perspective of someone who loves him, and who has a different world view. It’s difficult to explain.
Now, unfortunately, on to some things I had issues with.
Firstly there is something that I know other readers and reviewers have had an issue with in some way, whether negative or not.
Jude is the central character of A Little Life, and over the course of the book we hear about his life in more detail than anyone else’s, as well as his personal and emotional experience of that life. He was abandoned as a baby and raised by monks in a monastery. Straight away, he has no sense of home or belonging, does not know his birthday or heritage, does not have any ties. Then, there is the fact that he is abused over and over again throughout his entire childhood, by a succession of people. We learn about this abuse in stages over the course of the book (to hear it all at once would surely cause the reader to have some sort of small breakdown), and at each stage of revelation your heart breaks a little more. But I also became angry, frustrated. I couldn’t believe that Yangihara – and to some degree her editors – made the choice to make Jude suffer through so much. The sheer amount of abuse is unbelievable – it was just too much. This issue was raised in the comments below Leah’s review over at Books Speak Volumes, and one commenter, Shaina Reads, made the very good point that “Once you’ve let someone abuse/manipulate you, it’s easy to continue to think and act in patterns that make it easy for others to do the same, even when they don’t mean to.” This is very important to consider. But it is also important to consider that this is fiction, that the choice was made for Jude to be abused over and over again by so many different people. I became angry that it should be so unfair, that he should have to go through so much. It still doesn’t sit right with me.
There are also a couple of small things that bothered me. Firstly the ridiculous level of career success that all the central characters achieve – great for them, but it was a bit much. I suppose it makes up for personal suffering, but they have a ridiculous jet-set life, Jude and Willem in particular. It just seemed a bit over the top.
There’s also the fact that some events were glossed over when it seems like they should be important, or at least noteworthy – for example when the four of them go on holiday to India (extravagant, expensive), and it is the first time in a long time that they have been away together. You’d think this would be more important, but it is mentioned in passing. Anyway.
I know Jude is the focus of the novel, but I missed hearing more about Malcolm and JB’s lives as the book progressed. Jude and Willem’s story is very overwhelming, so it would have been nice to have a break with Malcolm and JB.
I also think the US cover – of a man’s crying face – is a little insensitive, given how much Jude cries and suffers.
Overall I really liked A Little Life – I enjoyed parts of it very much, but I really didn’t enjoy others, so I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed it as a whole. It was too difficult for that. I loved the characters, the writing, the settings, the world, the use of time and memory, and I would definitely read something else by Hanya Yanagihara. But I am bothered by the level of abuse depicted, the choice of making one character endure so much suffering. I didn’t agree with this choice on the part of the author, and I suppose the editor too. It overwhelmed all the good things about the book and was emotionally exhausting. I still think about Jude and feel sad for him, and angry at the unfairness of it all. I appreciate that abuse like this happens, and that this much may happen to one person in real life, and we must be aware of that, but this was created on purpose. I didn’t think the extreme level of abuse added anything to the story, or the book, or the character.
The ending was difficult, but Harold’s narration at that point was comforting. It reminds the reader that life goes on, and happiness is still out there – and that we should not dwell on sadness. I didn’t find this book very hopeful, but that is a hopeful message to take away from it.
Published in the US by Doubleday in March 2015; and in the UK by Picador in August 2015. My copy was kindly provided by Picador for review.