Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 2015)

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while, pondering how I feel about A Little Life. Turns out, the longer I wait, the less I feel as though I really liked this novel.

I heard several rave reviews of it before I started (including the cashier at Powells when I picked up a used copy in Portland) and so was happy to tackle the huge hardcover. And it wasn’t hard to get into. The characters are interesting and diverse and the book moves forward quickly and with a rate of revelation that makes you want to keep reading.

The novel’s description will tell you that it’s about four friends: Willem, Jude, JB, and Malcolm, and that it follows them from their early twenties, shortly after they’ve been roommates in university, and through the next forty or so years of life. That isn’t false but it’s really more the story of Jude and Willem. At some point, JB and Malcolm drop to secondary characters and while the book checks in on them occasionally, we don’t get much detail of their lives and we stop seeing anything from their perspective.

Even more so, the book is about Jude. It is Jude’s mysterious background and childhood that compel the reader to keep reading, as it is slowly revealed, and it is Jude’s development (or lack thereof) that we’re following. And while this is what kept me interested while I read, it’s also what makes me look back on the novel with a little less affection.

Jude arrives at university two years younger than his new roommates (who quickly become his first friends) and with his past shrouded with secrecy. He doesn’t talk about his home or family and others soon learn not to ask. At one point, it’s mentioned that they don’t even know Jude’s ethnicity, which I found slightly hard to believe and an unnecessary mystery.

Jude’s past is horrific. This is clear from early on and as the story progresses, more is steadily revealed until we learn the final, terrible event that left Jude physically disabled. There’s no one event in Jude’s life that is unbelievable – unfortunately, the world is full of terrible people and events and things like this do happen to children. It wasn’t even the sheer amount of horror that occurs to Jude in his life that felt unrealistic, it was that it is never balanced by a single moment of kindness. Everyone Jude meets from birth to about age sixteen is terrible and abusive. And then everyone after that (with one notable exception) loves and cares for and protects Jude. It seems that there is no middle ground with Jude; either people respect and care for him or they hate him and physically abuse him. This is a world without people who are ambivalent to or ignore others, it seems.

It’s a pity because Jude is an interesting character and the book uniquely looks at his life and the aftermath of his abusive childhood. The trauma of it follows and affects him for the rest of his life and it makes for a fascinating and heartbreaking portrayal of a person struggling to recover from something so terrible.

The friendship of Willem and Jude is central to the novel and we get a decent look at Willem’s background and his own childhood and how that has affected him. However, he remains a somewhat one-dimensional character, more a foil for Jude than someone who would be interesting to read about in his own right. Partway through the book, the relationship between Willem and Jude changes drastically and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. I don’t want to reveal too much but it felt like an unnecessary alteration. The friendship that the two men have up until that point is powerful and unique and the change seems to be done more to create tension than anything else. It didn’t feel like a natural progression of their relationship.

While I’ve been rather negative here, I did enjoy A Little Life while I read it. It’s a big book but I finished it quickly because I wanted to keep reading it and to find out what happened to the characters. Yanagihara is clearly a skilled writer and I would be happy to read more of her work.