A Little Life

Hana Yanagihara’s A Little Life has been described as the story of four friends (Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB), but it’s actually one man’s story: Jude’s story. A story of love, friendship, loyalty and… disturbing, relentless, unsparing suffering often rendered in such graphic detail that I found myself choking up at some points and at others questioning what kind of literary sadist Yanagihara had to be in order to write it.

Engrossed at times and repulsed at others, I both loved and hated this novel. The story was as devastating as it was compelling with parts of it beautifully, sensitively written and others so overwritten and overwrought that I swear I heard a Greek chorus wailing behind me as I read.

This is not a story for the faint of heart or for anyone working through concerns related to emotional, physical and or sexual abuse. It’s a searing account of how wounds inflicted in childhood and left untreated can turn into equally horrific self-abuse: Jude’s rage is turned inward and then written all over his own body. Having said that, the descriptions of the abuse don’t feel gratuitous or sensationalist despite their graphic nature. And, every time you think you cannot take anymore, Yanagihara flashes forward (or backward) to a scene of tender exchange between Jude and one of the other characters (Willem, in particular) that provides some beautiful, moving relief.

The oft-proclaimed love and loyalty of Jude’s friends and adopted family are frequently tested throughout the novel, and one of the things I kept asking (sometimes out loud!) was why they were all so willing to go along with Jude’s refusal to accept psychiatric treatment. The conclusion I came to was that this physically and emotionally broken man was the canvas on which they were able to paint their best visions of themselves, and they couldn’t afford to lose him. They were all, subconsciously, to one degree or another, invested in him remaining broken.

At 700+ pages, there were a host of other questions I had about the characters and events in A Little Life. I may try writing a longer piece about it at a later date but, for now, I’m offering this little review.

Have you read it? What questions did you have?

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