An hour ago upon writing this, I finished reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and I’m left as broken and devastated as I am touched and moved. Yes, it took me approximately sixty minutes to finally a) get myself together and stop the ugly-crying, and b) redeem myself post-sobbing session and start writing this blog post/review/generally a collective outburst so that I can finally start recovering from the emotionally draining reading experience that was brought to moi by this—let me find the words—extremely excruciating book. Set in New York during the present time with equal parts past and everything that had happened in between, Yanagihara paints a painful narrative of a powerful friendship tinged by success, addiction, jealousy, pride, and at times, privilege even.
Within the first few pages, chapters actually, A Little Life may seem like what its synopsis makes it out to be: A story that revolves around “four classmates from a small Massachusetts college [who] move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.” And it is, it is, but not entirely. Eventually, the story morphs into a deep and dark dissection mainly of Jude’s past and how everything that has happened to him all weaves into the modern day narration. In a gradual process, Hanya Yanagihara eases the direction of the story to focus solely on Jude, and it becomes more his story and how all the other characters fit right in it.
Throughout the novel we are constantly presented with the fact that something really bad, that in itself being an understatement, has happened to Jude in his childhood—specifics of his traumatic past scattered in flashbacks and indefinite paragraph chunks progressively across the novel. The first depiction of Jude’s winding turmoil reads, at least for me, on page 23:
“He [Willem] pulled open the door and found Jude on the floor, one leg tucked up against his chest. He had vomited, and some of it had pooled on the ground before him, and some of it was scabbed on his lips and chin, a stippled apricot smear. His eyes were shut and he was sweaty, and with one hand he was holding the curved end of his crutch with an intensity that, as Willem would later come to recognize, comes only with extreme discomfort.”
I thought this scene to be visually disturbing as I immediately pictured it in my head at the time that I was reading it. In that seemingly vague selection I was able to get an idea of how utterly bad this was going to be. Jude is in pain, that is a given, from that very paragraph we already know it. But to what extent does his pain physically and emotionally exist? From here on Yanagihara just starts spitting random revelations about him, a few touching ones and possibly more painful ones from his childhood, the damaging and the disturbing—there’s literally no in between.
Everywhere in A Little Life you find something to ache for.
One specific bit I found to be really interesting was the way Yanagihara distinguished the three other boys, in the keenest way possible, on page 108, in Jude’s perspective:
“Although if he were to tell anyone, he knew it would be Willem. He admired all three of his roommates, but Willem was the one he trusted. At the home, he had quickly learned there were three types of boys: The first type might cause the fight (this was JB), The second type wouldn’t join in, but wouldn’t run to get help, either (this was Malcolm). And the third type would actually try to help you out (this was the rarest type, and this was obviously Willem). Maybe it was the same with the girls as well, but he hadn’t spent enough time around girls to know this for sure.”
This was one of the many parts in the book that all the more encouraged my ever-growing fondness for Willem. Aside from Jude, he’s probably my favorite character, then Harold coming in next. And to be honest, I can’t even find the words to describe my appreciation for Willem. His patience, loyalty, and understanding stretch throughout the entirety of the story and it’s brilliant—so beautiful an experience to read about someone as kind as him. He’s just way too good for this book and to me he resembled hope, no matter how little it may be; and every time he’s mentioned I’m instantly relieved and somehow it’s easier to breathe.
The story itself, on the other hand, was mainly driven forward by character development rather than a clear, concise, point-by-point plot. Also, the timelines are shuffled and Yanagihara never really mentioned a specific date or year, almost as to blur cultural and political references, as well as major current events. That wasn’t an issue to me though, personally, as long as character studies are done elaborately, it’s all good.
Reading A Little Life was close to that of a journey. In extreme details, both the micro and the macro, we watch as these boys go through the ups and downs of adulthood, Jude being the most complex one. One thing I really wanted to maybe have seen more of was their years in college. We were always briefly told to believe that the four of them met in college, and that they had been the best of friends since; however there’s just a huge lack of history when it comes to that specific timeline.
Another scene that really got me was this one on page 764. And when you get to this point in the book, you’ll understand why I thought it was important. Yep, tears were shed:
“From the southern end of the roof, they could almost see the roof of their old building on Lispenard Street, and sometimes they would pretend that they could see not just the building, but them within it, their former selves performing a theater of their daily lives.”
“‘There must be a fold in the space-time continuum,’ Willem would say in his action-hero voice. ‘You’re here beside me, and yet—I can see you moving around in that shithole apartment.'”
Everywhere in A Little Life you find something to ache for. It’s ironic how a prose as beautiful as Yanagihara’s, specifically in this book, could mirror nothing but pure agony, as if it’s an endless one, and sadly for Jude it is; happiness only in bits and pieces. Several times I had to pause and put the book down, either to contemplate an event that had just occurred, or to just take a break in general, because this book is a lot to digest; a lot to have to carry around. However, I plan on rereading this soon mostly because I already miss these characters, these people, and I just have to be in that same zone with them again.
I don’t think this book is for everyone, though. As much as I hate the idea of triggers in a literary piece, I think it’s only appropriate to include a warning for this particular book as it has depictions of the following (please let me know if I miss anything): rape, child sexual abuse, verbal abuse, drug abuse, physical abuse, psychological manipulation, suicide, and self- harm. I definitely would not recommend this to anyone easily triggered by any of these topics.
A Little Life, all I can say, is a tragedy waiting to happen, and no, Hanya Yanagihara is nowhere near subtle nor gentle about it. She’ll pull you into a tight huddle of unfortunate, and not to mention, traumatic circumstances in which you’ll be too engrossed in to even allow yourself room to breathe. You’ll also easily notice the difficulty of wanting to put the book down—and trust me, you won’t. It’ll keep you up late into the night. The writing will consume you, almost as if the characters were actually alive that you’ll start to care for them and cling to their very fictional existence. The experience is not going to be easy, but getting lost in the story is.