BookBrowse Reviews A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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A Little Life

by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara X
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2015, 736 pages

    Jan 2016, 736 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Poornima Apte
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About this Book



A tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.

"The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there." These memorable opening lines might belong to another brilliant novel (The Go-Between, by L. P. Hartley) but they could well form the essential scaffolding for A Little Life, a wrenching yet illuminating exploration of how child abuse can exert a suffocating grip on adulthood.

Jude St. Francis is at the center of A Little Life's vast 700+ page canvas, a brilliant mind and tortured soul who endured unimaginable horrors as a child: "...fifteen years whose half-life have been so long and so resonant, that have determined everything he has become and done." The novel opens with a group of newly minted college graduates trying to make their way in present-day New York City. In addition to Jude, who is armed with a degree from Harvard Law, there's his closest friend Willem, who has his sights set on an acting career, and JB and Malcolm, who dabble in other creative pursuits. These four continue to be close friends in the city post-college, making do while keeping their eyes on the prize. Yanagihara sets up this essential framework, and then brilliantly explores the dynamics of these four friends, their loves and petty rivalries over the course of three decades. The focus fades in and out from each, even as the group's friendship is kept alive "by dropping bundles of kindling onto a barely smoldering black smudge of fire."

Right from the outset, we know Jude has been marked by tragedy. Whatever happened was brutal enough to leave him dealing with chronic pain, and his halting gait, coupled with a stoic silence, is a visible reminder of a past he desperately wants to forget. Yanagihara keeps us hooked by hinting at the menace that will soon rear its ugly head and by painting such comprehensive character pictures that the reader gets invested in their eventual outcomes. A Little Life is also remarkable in its portrayal of male friendships, for the empathy writ large on every page and is studded with writing so pitch-perfect, it requires a great deal of restraint not to highlight practically every paragraph as a perfect specimen of evocative prose. Every descriptor is perfect: even a plate falling loudly on a kitchen floor makes a "timpanic" sound.

Given how measured and even-keeled the rest of the novel is, the story of Jude's physical abuse stands out in stark contrast. Readers be warned: the horrors are rendered in vivid detail (I'll admit I skipped a couple of pages) and they are relentless. At one point, a character quotes a line from The Odyssey: "We have still not reached the end of our trials. One more labor lies in store – boundless, laden with danger, great and long, and I must brave it out from start to finish." This pretty much sums up Jude's trials too. The adult Jude is understandably haunted by his childhood and cuts himself regularly, but he is also a brilliant and ruthless litigator. Still, it becomes hard to believe that anybody could suffer from such a miserable childhood. Perhaps Yanagihara could have edited some of Jude's horrors. A little restraint here could have added a touch of nuance to the sections of the story that deal with children's abuse. While it is clear that Jude is a tortured soul, his essential character outline occasionally borders on caricature.

This is the only drawback in what is otherwise a marvel of a novel. Yanagihara's picturesque writing paints Jude's nightmares in such dramatic fashion, you can see the metaphorical hyenas tearing away at his soul. Equally remarkable is the exploration of Jude's abuse on his close relationships. This is a novel not just about the effects of abuse on the victim, but on everyone else dear to him. Weighed down with baggage of their own, Jude's inner circle – his Harvard Law professor, Harold (who will later assume a bigger role in his life) and friend Willem – struggle to deal with Jude's pain, his routine self-inflicted abuse as an adult, and his deepest fears and anxieties. Even his status at his high-powered job as one of the city's most successful and revered litigators, cannot solve these problems. "We were so ill-equipped. Most people are easy: their unhappinesses, their sorrows are understandable, their bouts of self-loathing are fast-moving and negotiable. But his were not. We didn't know how to help him because we lacked the imagination we needed to diagnose the problems," Harold says.

In its lighter moments, A Little Life is also one of the most brilliant examinations of the New York zeitgeist, a city where ambition is the only religion. "These were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault."

To compensate for the story's bleakness, there's sunshine in equal measure. Harold once says: "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." So it is, that A Little Life gives us hope — that generous doses of love and friendship might give us enough tenacity to make it through our darkest hours.

Reviewed by Poornima Apte

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2015, and has been updated for the February 2016 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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