A Little Life: A little review
By Flora Pick
Let's get the inevitable out of the way: this hulk of a book, clocking in at over 700 pages is anything but 'little' as it claims to be, in either physicality or scope. As someone with a tendency to lean on novellas and short stories as a means to feel vaguely productive in reading when lacking the commitment to tackle a novel, picking up Hanya Yanagihara's second work in Waterstones was a feat of minor bravery. Knowing next to nothing about it, save for the fact that Queer Eye's Antoni owns at least two shirts embellished with the character's names (as good an endorsement as any, I'm sure you'll agree), I went in utterly blind. Perhaps counterintuitively to the medium of review, I finished the novel glad of my initial cluelessness. Each turn hit like a punch to the gut, each beautiful reprieve more shining for its unexpectedness.
A relatively recent release, A Little Life garnered much hype throughout book awards of 2015, and given the themes Yanagihara is willing to explore being more relevant today than ever, it’s not difficult to understand why. Though the novel technically follows the lives of four men, all friends from their college days, its Jude who is the centre point, from which the plot's central conflicts spiral from. Jude's past, largely draped in mystery, haunts him; it's this unique and unflinching depiction of trauma that caught my attention. The narrative refuses to look away in moments of unequivocal horror, ugliness is allowed to exist in all glory. This has led some dismissing the book as little more than misery-porn for misery's sake. Whilst to a certain extent I understand such criticism, being the most difficult read I've ever had, the nuance of the writing and the author's clear love of her characters, too me at least, justify the horror she puts them through.
A Little Life is so much more than an exercise in the cruelties of humanity: the exploration of male relationships is second-to-none. Though sexuality and romance is undoubtedly a source of conflict, here platonic and familial connections are given equal, if not more, weight:
“Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people
who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or
children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication
to a union that could never be codified.”
Against the atrocity there is always love, in all its forms, a promise of better things to come.
The past, and learning to process it, is a prominent theme, as Jude struggles to form a clear identity for himself, when he feels so defined by what has been done to him by others. The novel is interspersed with non-chronological accounts of each character’s childhood, events left vague for hundreds of pages at a time: by the time the reader is privy to them, they are aching to be so. Non-chronological elements are handled with ease by the author, so that time-hopping gives much less whiplash than one might imagine.
Perhaps most interesting though, is the way in which such human messiness is placed against sometimes, fully self-aware, gratuitous description of the lushest lifestyles in New York City. Certain elements of the atrociously rich and successful character's lifestyles led to my pondering that certain aspects of the plot would not feel overly alien in a rather edgy very special episode of Gossip Girl. This is less surprising upon realising Yanagihara's position as the Style editor for the New York Times, lady knows her stuff. So, dear reader, you have your childhood trauma, you have your lifestyles of the rich and the beautiful: surely, we're all set?
Admittedly, A Little Life is Marmite-esque in that you shall either love it and find it to be a life-shattering piece of insight upon the human condition, or page after page (after page, after page...) of trite unceasing misery. This may be something one has to find out for themselves. In an odd sense, I don't feel fully in making a recommendation of reading this novel: it triggered multiple minor breakdowns, and required multiple day-long breaks from reading in order to finish without tears clouding my vision. However, if you're up for it, and down mind a good sobbing session, I recommend giving A Little Life a chance.