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What are the odds that the writer who grew up in Hawaii crafts not a “fluffy” and romantic beach read but a harrowing, hard-hitting saga of sorrow that may cause a little heart attack?
And who could have ever expected it to become a bestseller?
“A lovely surprise,” as Hanya Yanagihara, the author of “A Little Life,” commented.
A few dozen readers she hoped for are expanding into an army of those who’ve never wept so deeply while reading a book and worship her talent now.
Can you believe it, after the “unlovely” thing she did to them?
Read our review of “A Little Life” to find out what exactly she did and get a spoiler-free taste of what the novel is going to offer before ordering your copy here.
What is the Book A Little Life About?
With shifting perspectives, “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara tells the story of four pals-roommates who are ready to start their adult lives in NYC after graduation.
Malcolm – an architect in a prestigious company.
JB – a painter struggling to conquer the art world.
Willem – the kindest and the best-looking of the four whose aim is to land a career in acting.
Jude – a mysterious lawyer who becomes the focus of the novel’s spotlight.
It looks like a colorful big city life with its normal ups & downs.
But when their friendship has to be tested with pride, intoxication with success, and moral collapse, nobody can handle it.
Especially Jude, whose terrifying flashbacks from an abominable childhood, scars, and fresh cuts worsen the situation.
Their relationships are deepening, darkening, and going down the drain with each page.
List of A Little Life Trigger Warnings
Beware of the following trigger warnings in “A Little Life”:
- Intermittent drug use and addiction
- Child abuse, rape, and prostitution
- Eating disorders
- Self-harm, suicide attempts
- Verbal and psychological abuse, physical and sexual violence perpetrated against people with disabilities
A Little Life with Huge Challenges and Emotionally Restless Floodwaters
Gruesome Depictions and the Surface
Over-exaggeration was deliberate. Hanya Yanagihara acknowledged it herself. She insisted on such dreadful graphic depictions, even though her editor wanted something milder.
“I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book. […] I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places.”– Hanya Yanagihara
How else could readers get the fullest understanding of the abusive and dominating nature of a human and self-destructiveness?
Only by a detailed depiction, of course, appalling and disgusting.
To make you clearly imagine the core of wrongdoings and miseries, dwell on those, and carve them into your consciousness.
This way, you taste life’s agonies, smell its burns and understand the opposition between a traumatized man and the surrounding, as well as his inner conflicts.
Then there’s the cover – the surface.
“Orgasmic Man,” a photograph by Peter Hujar, was chosen for a book cover by Hanya Yanagihara because she found this enthralling icon rather intimate and even visceral. Its sense is ambiguous for the story.
Hanya emphasized it in the interview: is it pain or pleasure?
Ironically, it doesn’t represent the euphoria of orgasm in the novel, as the author reveals a plotline full of anguish, where even friends cannot help you out unless you’re ready to want it yourself.
Navigating the Sea of the Sorrow and Beauty in Friendship
Hanya’s main idea is that in friendship, unlike in other socially regulated relationships, participants (friends) are free to decide on their roles in interactions, dictate limits and laws.
The role of a friend becomes particularly visible and tangible with Willem’s endeavors to save Jude from himself.
The normality of friendship at the beginning, however, is opposed to the abnormality of Jude’s not-life-but-rather-existence described further in the novel.
Jude’s unwillingness to tell anything to his mates, his loneliness, suicidal ideation, and then suicide attempts correlate with his unrepairable traumas from the past.
He suffers mentally and physically from those echoes, feeling unworthy of any positive attitudes.
Then anew – the life’s carousel stops at despicable and horrible points repeatedly, while Jude has to go through those again and again.
Apocalyptic Whirlpool of A Little Life that Takes You In
Now to the profoundly “unlovely” thing Hanya Yanagihara did to her reading audience.
With all her writer’s force, she collected all the cruelty (and self-cruelty too) and all the sufferings of the world into one container and made her readers do an Ice Bucket Challenge pouring those into their minds.
But if you’ve already participated in the literal one and even enjoyed it, it’s doubtful you’ll be excited about it now.
It makes you shiver or get your guts frozen once you read the book and feel the turmoil cascading. Somehow, in a beautifully touching way (if such one can ever exist).
The flood never stops, though, and it literally sinks or swims. Gradually, when you descend into the darkest places in the story, emotional drainage awaits you there…
What Hanya Yanagihara does with the reader may seem rather rough, but, at the same time, the story is unbearably moving.
“A Little Life” is a feverishly addictive novel.
Watch out, however, as it can hurt you sharper than a knife.
Some weird kind of a recommendation, but once you get your copy, prepare a clean T-shirt too, because the one you’ll be wearing while reading may be utterly soaked with tears.
Can a 14-year-old read A Little Life?
We wouldn’t recommend it to the YA audience, 18+ only.
Why is reading A Little Life so hard?
It’s painful, packed with tragic events, moral dilemmas, and there’s little action ongoing.
Is A Little Life Ableist?
Yes, there are scenes with violent psychological and physical behavior with the disabled person and internalized ableism.
Is A Little Life a true story?
It’s a fiction inspired by artworks that tells rather a victim’s part of the story.
You’ll feel it after reading “The People In The Trees” (debut novel by Hanya Yanagihara) which is indeed based on the real-life case of a virologist and disgraced Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Gajdusek.