Book review: “A Little LIfe,” by Hanya Yanagihara
August 8, 2015
Hanya Yanagihara knows exactly what she is doing. Her first novel, 2013's deeply under-appreciated “The People in the Trees,” was a complex Nabokovian epic about a fictional scientist who discovers immortal life on a remote Micronesian island. The subject matter was dark and unrelenting, handling the disturbed protagonist in a way that made him surprisingly relatable — and sometimes pretty terrifying. “A Little Life” is perhaps the mirror image of this work. Where “The People in the Trees” often felt sterile and cold, this new work is incredibly heartfelt — I mean an open-heart surgery kind of heartfelt.
The story follows a group of four men — Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm — through the course of decades of their lives in New York City. We watch these men grow and change through success and heartbreak: JB, the Bohemian artist; Willem, the aspiring actor; Malcoln, the architect; and, of course, Jude, a brilliant attorney whose mysterious past is only revealed in brief glimpses in the first several hundred pages. As with her first novel, Yanagihara's true talent lies in the layers of complexity she gives her characters. As a reader, you develop a relationship with each one individually until you feel as though you are truly part of the group. Any tragedy that befalls them hits you deeply, and there is plenty of tragedy this time around.
It has been argued by other critics that a major theme of this work is the path toward redemption (or lack thereof), and this is most apparent with Jude's character. Learning of his upbringing is rough, and this is the place at which the obligatory trigger warning should go. Raised an orphan, Jude's childhood took place in many ghastly institutions where physical abuse was common, and this shaped the man he was to become. His friends, despite their closeness, know nothing of his past. As he refuses to speak of it, they form theories based on his perpetually long sleeves, his self-disparaging demeanor and an injury that has left him with a permanent limp. As witness to the horrors Jude has experienced, the reader often wants to scream at the page, begging him to just confess his experiences so someone can help. In this way, Yanagihara has created a stark contrast: Jude's harrowing past, surrounded by those who only wished to hurt, and his present, in which he is surrounded by those who love and care for him. As in reality, however, memory is the true master: Jude is its slave. Redemption is not always an option when you have been broken, and yet, it is always what you strive for.
This is the kind of book the reader should know exactly what he or she is tackling before beginning. In this case, take a look at the cover image. Like its cover, “A Little Life” is bleak and unardorned, the close-up of a man's face in an ambiguous grimace. Yanagihara is not one for dancing around a subject, so prepare for an emotional ride. Other works of this length might begin to feel manipulative with such difficult content, but these are the hands of a master. There is beauty here; there is love, and there are tears, but even after seven hundred pages, I did not want “A Little Life” to end.
Logan Farmer is a bookseller at Off the Beaten Path