A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

bookcover-alittlelifeThe term “fairy tale” describes circumstances or things notably blessed with great happiness and good fortune, such as a fairy tale ending or a fairy tale wedding or romance.

In the centuries-old form of oral and written storytelling, those unjustly harmed, downtrodden and beleaguered are rescued and showered with rewards and love. The compensation arrives by various forms of magic and divine intervention. Modern fairy tales focus almost exclusively on the glorious rewards and glosses over the cruelties that precede them. Before fairy tales evolved into children’s entertainment (and further, were cinematically Disney-fied), they were actually as macabre and violent as anything Quentin Tarantino could wickedly concoct.

And that’s where I arrive at a way of encapsulating and working my way to some kind of recovery from the reading experience that is A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Days since my eyes slipped from the end of what did not feel like page 720 because it went so swiftly, I’m still digesting and reeling from what is essentially a fairy tale, with an intense concentration of abuse and sorrow thrown up against an equally dense compression of transcendent joy, accomplishment and love encompassed in this book.

Four young men graduate from a small Massachusetts college and remain friends as they pursue their lives and careers in New York. The book traces the relationships of actor Willem, artist JB, architect Malcolm and lawyer Jude from post adolescence to late adulthood. The era in which their story unfolds is not specific, but is contemporary. As the friends move from youth to maturity and to notable measures of success, theirs is literally and figuratively a rich universe, strangely cloistered from or devoid of financial considerations or the influence of technological change or world events. (Set in New York City and environs, a notable historical event is almost startlingly absent.)

The relationships of the four young men intertwine and at times unravel, then spool back, in believable and organic fashion over the years. Increasingly implausible, however, is the tolerated mystery around the horrific traumas in Jude’s early life, which inform and affect his savagely self-abusive behaviour as an adult. As readers, we learn more than Jude’s friends, adoptive family and ostensibly close circle about the nature and extent of these traumas, making his behaviour and secrecy perversely understandable, but as frustrating for knowing it as not.

Simultaneously frustrating and awe-inspiring is Jude’s contemplation later in life, when it would be fair to say that life has continued to test with rollercoaster alternations of happiness and grief:

“It had always seemed to him a very plush kind of problem, a privilege, really, to consider whether life was meaningful or not. He didn’t think his was. But this didn’t bother him so much.

“And although he hadn’t fretted over whether his life was worthwhile, he had always wondered why he, why so many others went on living at all; it had been difficult to convince himself at times, and yet so many people, so many millions, billions of people, lived in misery he couldn’t fathom, with deprivations and illnesses that were obscene in their extremity. And yet on and on and on they went.”

Even frustrated and repeatedly pummelled along the way, the reader is drawn so inexorably into this extended, grim fairy tale of a story. A Little Life (the title itself is many-layered, and appears as a phrase in one of the book’s most wrenching scenes) is dream-like, but like the most haunting dreams, it is pervasive, puzzling, tormenting and deeply moving when one wakes … or when one closes the book. It is a sprawling, horrendous, heartwrenching, uplifting Cinderella story – where, fortunately and marvellously, the evil step-parent trope is upended.

There is much one can clinically criticize or dissect about A Little Life, but so very much one cannot emotionally or even spiritually dismiss.

5 thoughts on “A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

  1. Lauren Carter

    Dead on. I heard an interview with Hanya Yanagihara (on the Guardian, I think) and she talked about wanting to push things to a level that was almost unbelievable but not quite which rings nicely with what you say here about fairy tales. Such a perfect way to view this book. I adored it too, while also rolling along on the swells of occasional heartbreak and frustration. I think it’s because I so enjoyed the world she crafted and the people there and, you know, the thing seemed *true* to me. That level of agony does happen, and in this novel, she’s made it sacred in a way you don’t normally see.

  2. Kerry

    I feel strange about my reluctance to pick up this book: to my mind it seems too long with not enough female characters and guaranteed to rip my heart out. So I’ve steered clear. And yet I’m oh so intrigued, particularly with your review…

    1. bookgaga Post author

      I went in knowing that my heart was going to be battered, and it was. But I continued to marvel, even through the worst of it, at the author’s power to hold me through it all. I’m still thinking hard about how she did that when, as I hope my review conveys, it’s a book with arguable flaws. But the more I think about it, I’m reminded of books that enthralled me as a young reader, that I could technically dismiss when I revisited them as an, er, older reader – but I still could not dismiss their emotional heft. So, the fairytale comparison perhaps still holds – that there are elemental aspects of storytelling that will still grip us, no matter what. Yanagihara has mastered that here.

      Funny, the comparative absence of women characters had not occurred to me, during or post … In many respects, I don’t think I thought about gender much with the central four characters … maybe their experiences and relationships simply don’t have gender qualifications attached to them, if that makes sense. Ah, more to ponder …

  3. Theresa

    You’ve nailed it, I think, with the fairy-tale observation. So grim, and yet rich and compelling — and also instructive in a strange way. I couldn’t put it down and it stayed with me, troubled me…

    1. bookgaga Post author

      Thanks, Theresa. It’s great to be able to share my thoughts on this singular book with other readers. My reaction was very similar to yours.


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