A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
To begin, let me warn that Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, is a book that will consume you. At more than 700 pages, reading it will take a significant chunk of your life. It deals with dark subjects—child sexual abuse and self-mutilation, to name two of them. And the time you spend with these characters, spanning four decades, will involve you deeply and unforgettably in their lives.
Truthfully, it is not a book for everyone. But if character-rich, psychologically immersive novels are your cup of tea, you won’t be able to put A Little Life down.
Words like “all-consuming,” “hypnotic” and “addictive” have been used to describe this reading experience, and Yanagihara has said that she intended the world of this book to be “intimate and oppressive—and utterly inescapable.” The narrative includes no mention of recognizable external events (like 9/11), the better to focus exclusively on the internal worlds of her characters as they navigate their relationships with one another.
A Little Life follows four college roommates from their undergrad years through midlife as they settle in New York City and search for fame and fortune. They are a diverse bunch, from very different backgrounds. Serious and anxious, Upper East Side Malcolm dreams of becoming a successful architect; Willem, the son of a Wyoming ranch hand, waits tables before becoming a household name film and stage actor; and JB, son of Haitian immigrants, is an aspiring artist whose portrait paintings that almost exclusively feature his three friends eventually draw the attention of the Museum of Modern Art. On his path to becoming a successful corporate lawyer, withdrawn and enigmatic Jude reveals little about where he came from, and his friends learn not to ask, although we learn that as a baby he was found in a dumpster by monks who didn’t always have his best interests in mind.
The early chapters unfold as a fairly typical ensemble novel, examining the childhoods, quirks, dreams and aspirations of the four young men, as they attend parties, argue with one another and court success. Soon, however, the story begins to circle around Jude and the dark secret of his past.
We find out only bits and pieces of Jude’s brutal childhood of abuse and neglect, a childhood about which he feels such shame that he is certain his friends will walk away from him in disgust if they learn of it. The glimpses into his inner horror are stark and brutal; in fact, it seems that much of the length of the book is the need for Yanagihara to give the reader a respite between these reveals. The horrors of Jude’s childhood are the foundation of his character, however, and their recounting begs the question: How much of our history can we transcend? Is there a point when the damage calcifies and we cannot be free of it?
Improbably (and thankfully), A Little Life is also an incredibly tender story, and ultimately, a love story—of love between men; father and son, mentor and student, romantic love and that of enduring friendship.
Yanagihara’s insistence on making male relationships the core of her story—the few women characters remain very peripheral—has added a rare exploration of love between men to the literary pantheon.
Lisa Gresham is the Collection Support Manager for the Whatcom County Library System.
(Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, Wednesday, June 8, 2016)