If there were a pause button for our emotions, I would use it in a heartbeat to recover from this novel. To put things into perspective, I haven’t cried reading a book in around ten years. During the last 100 pages of A Little Life, I was a wreck. I’m not talking one cinematic tear down my cheek. I’m talking throat closing over, eyes so blurred it’s difficult to see the page, and snot running down my face like a waterfall. It was ugly. Lord knows how I’m going to write a structured and articulate review on this one.
Who, What, Where?
A Little Life tells the story of four friends, who after meeting at university, move to New York together. There’s Willem, the caring & good looking aspiring actor; JB, a snarky artist hoping to eventually make it to the big time; Malcolm, a junior architect slaving his way at a big firm, waiting for his moment to shine; and Jude, the withdrawn and intelligent legal associate that they all seem to revolve around. The book takes place over several decades of their lives, dealing with the highs and lows, but particularly with how Jude’s traumatic and horrific past has come to dictate his present and that of his friends as well.
An Emotional Roller Coaster
This won’t be for everyone. At 720 pages, A Little Life is a long read and could probably have been slightly shorter. For the most part, it’s not a happy one either. Sure, there are plenty of lovely moments sprinkled across the story but this is a book that deals extensively, and sometimes graphically, with issues of child physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence, suicide, depression, grief/loss, drug addiction, self-harm, and a whole host of other things. To say that it’s difficult to read is putting it lightly. My heart hurt through about two thirds of it and page 641 probably fractured my soul. If you connect with the characters, it’ll put you through the emotional ringer and, if this is your kind of book, trust me, you will.
If I were ever to write a book of my own, I would be grateful even to write characters half as rich, tangible and layered as the ones in A Little Life. Each are beautifully crafted with their own passions, goals, talents, fears, failings, and histories. By the end of the book I felt as though I had spent years looking through a window into the lives of real people that I truly cared about. To be blunt, the characterisation in this novel is simply fantastic. However, while there are certainly quite a few players (Willem & Jude’s father figure, Harold, were my personal favourites), this is most certainly Jude’s story. As the book starts to make this clear, we spend less time with the perspectives of other characters, notably JB & Malcolm. In a short list of critiques of this book, I will say, this is something which disappointed me somewhat and I feel as though some chapters could have been diverted from Jude in service of his friends without harming his journey.
Jude is a talented, kind, and intelligent man but he’s also severely damaged, both physically and mentally. He goes through a great deal over the course of the novel in both past and present. The story slowly develops the difficult trajectory of his past and delves into how it influences both his sense of self and relationships as an adult. There were points where I had to wonder, how can so many terrible things happen to one person? Yet, at the same time, because Jude and the story felt so real to me, in asking this question I can’t help but feel like I’m questioning the events of someone’s life and so, I have to put my doubts aside. Jude is a complex character and A Little Life spends a lot of time helping the reader to understand his emotions and thought processes. You do grow very attached to him and genuinely feel his moments of happiness and despair.
Beauty in Prose
The writing in this novel is gorgeous. The prose is honest, flows, and sometimes Yanagihara phrases something so perfectly, you have to stop and admire it. I should note, however, that due to the length of some sentences, comma use, and the novel’s constant, almost seamless transitions between memory and present, you do need to concentrate on what’s happening or risk being momentarily confused about where and when you are.
Friendship & Love
While A Little Life is very much about trauma and self-worth, it’s also about so much more: love, friendship, and the nature of life itself. It’s looks at how friendships grow and change with time, how they can be lost and repaired, and the dynamics within them; it showcases inexplicable and unconditional love in all its forms, our need of it and us being deserving of it even when we cannot see that ourselves; and most of all, it’s a book about how life may be full of darkness but that there will also be light and to find joy in even the smallest of things.
Despite its few issues, the connection I had with this book and the emotional response it instilled makes it feels wrong to give it anything less than five stars. A Little Life is a long, difficult ride, but one that’s beautiful, worthwhile, and utterly unforgettable.