Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication Date: 2015
Genre: Literary Fiction, Contemporary
Content Warnings: (spoilers!) *highlight to view* { self harm, suicide, physical abuse, loss of a child, addiction, sexual assault, ptsd, complex trauma, prostitution of a minor, pedophilia, emotional abuse, abuse of a disabled character, suicidal ideation }

I can’t remember the first time I saw A Little Life going around the internet. With it’s distinct cover design, you just can’t help but be intrigued. I read the blurb and I found nothing remarkable, but then I scanned some reviews and it promised pain. Ignoring the trigger warnings, I didn’t even know what I was planning when I insisted I include this in my TBR. The book was always out of stock – but luckily, I was able to nab a paperback copy from a local bookstore which delivers to my place. I received it exactly a day before my 5-day vacation from work (something I was so looking forward to ever since I came back in the PH from my assignment in the US) – it almost felt like I was fated to read it at the time I did – little did I know that I would be having one of the most emotional reads I’ve ever had.

BLURB

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
(via Goodreads)

THOUGHTS

But what in life wasn’t connected to some greater, sadder story?

Let me just say it outright: they are right. A Little Life is not an easy book to get through. Personally, this is one of the most depressing and emotional books I’ve ever read. This is probably the most emotional read I’ve had in years. This book was heartbreaking – that by the end of almost each part (it has 7 parts), I was so drained that I have to take a breather to steady myself. But make no mistake, this is a great book – it is just so heavy, in terms of both themes and content.

The reception for this book is generally positive, with others claiming that it was almost manipulative, the way this book was written to specifically elicit emotions from the reader. While I understand this sentiment, I have to applaud Hanya Yanagihara for not holding back for fear of offending the readers. This is a brilliant study of human emotions and how complex trauma can have lasting effects in one’s later life. While I have to agree that this book is long and wordy – bordering on too descriptive, yes – but there are so many moments where this book shone exactly because of that. Hanya Yanagihara managed to convey human emotions uniquely, albeit a little more graphic than its counterparts. I am a fan of books that elicit strong emotions from a reader, whether intentionally or not, and this book definitely delivered on that front. She “wanted everything turned up a little too high” and – since writing is, in a way, executing a vision – execute it, she did.

I honestly am not sure why I was able to read the harrowing parts of the book that easily, as I am usually sensitive to these themes. Looking back, I noticed that I was sort of “numbed” to most of it (I guess the way these were presented in non-sequential flashbacks totally has a role in this, as if you’re looking at it from the outside) and that I found myself being more emotional in the “present”, where the extent and long-term effects of these events were excruciatingly explored. The book used alternate POVs between the four friends, and some 1st person POV chapters from Harold, Jude’s father-figure in the story. But much of this book revolved around the mysterious Jude – and revealing his past felt almost like peeling a fruit in agonizing slowness. You are afraid of what you’ll find there but it only fuels your curiosity so you keep going.

And I think this is mainly the reason why I was able to unexpectedly breeze through the first part of the book even though there is a sense of tediousness that is hard to ignore, as if the book is telling you that it requires extra effort than usual. The book started slow, personally, almost an exposition – giving you a clear picture of the four friends, how they met, the extent of their relationships with one another, and where they are in the “now” – with no clear plot and a lot of intrigue brought about by Jude. But then the beat picked up when we reached the second part of the book, The Postman – and it never stopped.

They said “Dear Comrade” was the heaviest chapter, but somehow, personally, I feel like it is “The Axiom of Equality“. It was so hard to read, more so than others.

…his life, as inconceivable as it is, is still a life.

In retrospect, I feel for A Little Life what I felt for Grave of the Fireflies after I watched it. I just feel so hollow. It was a good book, a good read – but I don’t think I can ever re-read any of it again. It was cathartic, yes. But the experience is not something I would actively recommend. Despite everything though, I’m still glad that I read this book. Please be mindful of the trigger warnings (detailed above) if ever you want to read this book. Because I assure you, Hanya Yanagihara would definitely go for each of it – hard.

Re. the COVER –

The cover photo is titled “Orgasmic Man” taken by Peter Hujar in the 1960s. I’ve read in this article (The Story of the Story: 15 Things You Didn’t Know about A Little Life) that “Yanagihara fought to use the photo on the cover because of the ambiguity of whether the man is in pleasure or pain. It gives the viewer a sense that they may be seeing someone at their most vulnerable–as readers witness Jude throughout the book.” I find this tidbit really fascinating. Now the “orgasmic man” cover makes total sense. Initial thought I have was because the orgasmic man looks like he was in pain so it might allude to Jude experiencing chronic pain. But now reading this, the way you cannot decide “whether the main is in pleasure or pain” makes sense. Because that’s life. It’s painful, but it was such pleasure as well [to be alive]. And I think that thought is beautiful. This will probably one of the most memorable book covers I will ever see – just because of the emotions it elicit and the sentiment behind it.

RATING

QUOTABLE QUOTES

…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.

Sometimes you feel more of one thin and less of another, and sometimes you feel them out of order, and sometimes you feel them for a longer time or a shorter time. But the sensations are always the same.

Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities. Right and wrong, however, are for – well, not unhappy people, maybe, but scarred people; scared people.

“And tell me this: I must be absolutely sure. The place I’ve reached, is it truly Ithaca?”

Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it. We all cling to it; we all search for something to give us solace.

There’s not an expiration date on needing help, or needing people. You don’t get to a certain age and it stops.

All the most terrifying Ifs involves people. All the good ones do as well.

GET THE BOOK! >> Amazon | Book Depository | Barnes and Noble | Fullybooked (upon request)

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Auditor by profession and a 'round-the-clock geek 🤓 from the 🇵🇭. I'm a coffee-holic INTJ with an unhealthy obsession with books and stationery. I word-vomit over at Twitter and posts book pics at Instagram: @pagesandcc . I also blog at https://pagesandcoffeecups.com/ .

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