REVIEW: A Little Life

If there’s any time to consume a 720-page book, it is lockdown. This was my thinking as I picked up A Little Life, alert to the fact that it would take a little lifetime to read. 

Yet by the end of this book, I felt like I’d lost my family as I closed the page on a sparser cast than I’d started out with. It is the kind of novel where you want to scream your way into the narrative, to have your own chapter intervening and sending the plot on a happier path. Yet Hanya Yanagihara refuses us the consolation of a happy ending.

But perhaps that’s the point of this book. Humans aren’t eternally malleable. We are defined by our past, and the context in which we develop is difficult to erase. Even when the novel reached happy peaks, there was always a sense that these moments wouldn’t last and that something in the delicate equilibrium would fall through and send Jude tumbling to the ground again, left to the demons of his past (his resident ‘hyenas’). 

This was a stunning, powerful read, which I know will stick with me for a long time. It sheds light on the power of friendship and family, the themes of change and resistance to change, and the overbearing force of evil. It follows the lives of four friends who’ve laid roots in New York. “New York was populated by the ambitious,” observes JB, the four of them prime examples of this. We meet JB, a self-assured artist, searching for colour in his life, Malcolm, an architect, Willem, a charming actor and Jude, a haunted lawyer. The narrative then centres on Jude and his tumultuous recovery, as he attempts to find a present, amongst an overbearing past.

This novel screams about the paramount importance of friendship. Not sex, work or wealth. Not status, or celebrity. For every tragic retelling of Jude’s past, there was a vibrant counterforce of friendship and care to counteract this. It reminded me that what connects people to places are the memories made there. The moments of kindness in this novel are a stark contrast to the troughs of pain and abuse. They were jewels amongst the debris and left my heart feeling much larger. 

I spoke to a friend about A Little Life, and she felt annoyed that novels like this, which she categorised as ‘gay fiction’ are always full of contempt and sadness. Often I’d agree; gay fiction of the past has been curated in an age of stigma and stereotypes. Realistic depictions of gay relationships are often influenced by the context of their writing, such as Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room. However, I think that the narrative of this novel offers a refreshing lack of concern for stereotypes and labelling. It shows that friendship is all-important, love is paramount, and the mechanism for just how this love operates is not important. I found this an incredibly refreshing stance on relationships. It transgressed the norm, and it felt like the characters were in their own bubble, protected from the outside world by their own candid trust in each other.

Overall, this novel is beautifully constructed. Every single scene jumps from the page in 4D. So often I read it through my fingers and felt like I’d been punched in the stomach by what I’d just read. Maybe I’m not selling this book, but I just want everyone to read it! Yanagihara has expertly crafted a bombshell, which has taught me so much about life and love and happiness. I feel like the tin man in the Wizard of Oz, who finally found a heart, only to have it broken by the end.

Image Credit: Bustle