Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Short Review: A Little Life is an emotionally devastating character study of unprecedented depth. Read it for its artistry, even though it pushes the boundaries into excessively sad.
Those following my tweets or Goodreads over the last week or so are very well aware that I’ve read A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara. They were very authentic reactions to what was happening in the novel. One status update read, “I’m literally making the face on the cover of this book,” and I meant it.
A Little Life has been doing amazingly this award season. Short-listed for the 2015 Man Booker Prize (It was beat out by my next book club choice, A Brief History of Seven Killings) and long-listed for many more, it’s continuing to gather acclaim. It’s well deserved, because this book succeeds at making readers feel the plight of its characters with incredible depth.
Trudging its way to bestseller status despite being over 700 pages and a definitive mood killer, A Little Life has become many different things to many different types of people. Is it the next great gay novel? Is it a coming-of-age novel on steroids? Is it a subversive look about the difficulties of post-traumatic healing?
There’s Jean-Baptiste, the gifted artist filled with characteristic Haitian pride; Malcolm, the wealthy mixed-race aspiring artist who seems to consistently fall short of his father’s expectations; Willem, the son of poor Swedish migrants with a promising acting career; and Jude, the wildly intelligent orphan riddled by a shocking assortment of physical and emotional scarring. Jude is the most mysterious, and it is on him that Yanagihara focuses her story. The novel changes perspective on numerous occasions, but it always comes back to Jude, adding to readers’ knowledge of him and how people act around him. While it starts as a book of 4 boys navigating adulthood in NYC, it becomes a story of Jude, and the people who fight against losing him to his personal demons.
If you are uncomfortable with self harm, rape, child trafficking, drug abuse, intimate partner violence, this isn’t the novel for you. In fact, if there is any graphic subject matter that you take completely off the table, then this book is likely not for you. This is not a test—each of those trigger warnings are present in the book multiple times. Feel free to ask me more specific questions in the comments below.
There’s a worthwhile conversation to be had about whether she wrote this ode to pain and shame strictly for shock value, because its unclear. Yanagihara has said herself that she wanted A Little Life “to begin healthy (or appear so), and end sick.” While I thought it was excessive, I was willing to overlook this because of the beautiful writing and audiobook performance (a performance which really warrants its own review). However, the last few pages pushed me over the edge. It’s absolutely excessive, and I’m positive that a sum of 100 pages could have been pulled from various parts of the book without lessening its overall impact. Some deaths were shocking, yet necessary to push the story forward, but the ones in the end were unnecessary. They actually detracted from the novel for me–I began to doubt the purpose or central theme(s) of the novel. I began to think there wasn’t a purpose or central theme at all.
Yanagihara is a fantastic writer, but she must also have a seething pool of misery deep in her mind. There’s no other explanation for the amount of unhappiness she crams into one book. For me, there came a point where even her talent couldn’t force me to overlook the hyper dramatics.
With that said, I gave this book 4.5 out of 5 stars, and the audiobook performance a perfect score, because it’s absolutely stunning. The prose, if oftentimes overwritten, is beautiful, making the plot all the more devastating. I’m pretty on board with many of the criticisms listed here. As for the audiobook, it lives up to its Audible reviews. I’m almost positive I enjoyed the audio performance more than I would have enjoyed the physical book.
If you’re confused about whether or not I’d recommend this book– I don’t. You have to be intrigued and open-minded enough to pick it up on your own. It’s 720 pages (or 32 hours) where happiness is staccato, dotting what is otherwise uninterrupted desolation. Thus, while I’m happy I read to A Little Life, I can’t in good conscience recommend it without reservation. When you read it, you’ll understand why.
Have you read A Little Life? Is it on your TBR list? Have you ever read something and thought it was excessively violent, or negative? What’s your threshold for this type of subject matter? Let me know in the comments!