A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My second book for the (Wo)Man Booker Shadow Panel was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I figured I should get one of the super-long books out of the way, particularly since this one is bound to be a subject of much discussion when the Shadow Panel gets its deliberations underway. And what a reading experience it was. I’m still sorting out my thoughts about the book; it strikes me as the kind of novel I might feel differently about a month or a year or a decade from now. We’ll see. But I was thoroughly absorbed in the story, all 700+ pages of it. I kept happily reading even as I noticed some awkward things about it — strange point of view shifts, repetitions, sections that went on too long, odd descriptions. But for me, the story retained its power, even though I started to feel itchy reading about so much wealth and privilege, so much about huge New York City lofts, about jaunts around the world, about fabulously expensive apartment remodels. There is so much suffering alongside the wealth; the central drama of the novel is the slow uncovering of the main character Jude’s horrific abuse as a child and the effects this has on himself and his circle of friends. Jude lives in constant pain, both physical and mental, and his three best friends, whose lives the novel follows through the decades, only gradually discover this. A Little Life is a novel about pain and suffering but equally about friendship, the various types of friendship and how they can change and develop over time. It’s about the pleasures and the limitations of friendship, and about the unfortunate way our society doesn’t take the relationship seriously enough (close friendships can never, ever be as good as marriage, supposedly). It’s about the extent to which it’s possible to recover from trauma and how much other people can and can’t help the victim.

The novel is probably too long, but I stayed under its power the entire way through. I liked the way Yanagihara slowly revealed the characters’ histories. I appreciated her willingness to take her time with the characters’ lives, even when they followed the same pattern again and again. The novel made me think more deeply about what it’s like to suffer from chronic pain. This is something a long novel is particularly well-suited to do, to really get into someone’s mind and show us what it’s like to live there. The experience of living in Jude’s mind over the course of an intense week of reading made me feel compassion for him in a way I might not have otherwise.

I don’t think I’d want to reread this book, though. It seems like the kind of novel that is something to experience — whether you like it or not! — just one time. I wonder whether it has staying power, whether the rewards make the book’s length worth while. But, at any rate, I feel under this book’s spell. I’m not sure how hard I would fight to get it on a prize short list, but it seems worthy of serious consideration. But where I stand on this depends on the quality of the other books I’m about to read. Up next is Laila Lalami’s The Moor’s Account, as well as further listening to Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread on audio.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

  1. I will give Yanagihara credit for writing an absorbing book! Even though my feelings started to sour by the time I was halfway through, I never gave much thought to giving up reading. I wanted to know the whole story, even though I was increasingly exasperated by it!

    It’s interesting that you felt the novel’s length helped you feel more compassion for Jude. For me, it had the opposite effect as I got more and more frustrated with the fact that he wasn’t getting proper help. After a while, I just found it impossible to believe and then I stopped caring altogether.

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    • It makes sense that the book’s length could have the opposite effect of what I described. It seems like this book casts a spell over readers or it doesn’t — and if not, I can see how it would get exasperating. There is something about Jude’s inability to talk about his life that makes sense to me, and I think that’s part of why I kept feeling compassion.

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  2. I would want to work through one of the longer ones at this stage too; it’s nice, in a reading project, to know that you are making progress through your list. This isn’t one that I was sure I’d want to read, but your review is very encouraging. I especially like the fact that you’ve mentioned you think it might be too long but that it held your attention all the same. I’ve had that thought about other books and ultimately decided that it must not have been too long (for my taste, anyhow) after all, or else I’d’ve set it aside long before. I’m ading this one to my TBR!

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    • Yes, I guess it wasn’t too long, if I stayed with it happily. But there were definitely things to cut. I admire her for insisting that it stay the length it is, though. There’s something so valuable about a truly immersive experience.

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  3. Interesting. I will be curious to see how it holds up next to some of the other novels on the list. Doesn’t seem like you can imagine it actually winning, but I suppose even making it onto the long list is a great recognition

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  4. I admit I’m afraid to read this. I’ve heard mostly glowing things about it, but child abuse is one of my book deal-breakers, especially if there is heavy emphasis and great detail. Great review, though.

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    • Yes, this is definitely a book to avoid if child abuse is a deal-breaker. There is a lot of detail, and it’s throughout the whole book, told in little bits and pieces here and there, so it’s not like you can read a few difficult pages and be done with it. This book is definitely not for everyone!

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  5. I had a difficult time writing about this book, heck! I had a difficult time reading it! But that is not to say I wasn’t completely absorbed by it. The power with which Hanya Yanagihara wrote it is substantial, and I will never forget it. I felt that I knew the characters by the time I finished, that they were living, breathing people. I didn’t go into the wealth and the friendship and the gay aspect throughout. I felt I would be giving too much away. Jude was so careful about revealing himself gradually to us,

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    • Yes, the characters came to life for me too, and I don’t think I’ll forget this one any time soon either! I really like the way she wrote about sexuality and race, although I didn’t have time to get into that.

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  6. I meant to add that I can see Teresa’s point of view, too. One did wonder at the hopelessness of it all, the way the professional help never did help him. But I have found that to be true. Sometimes, tragically, there is nothing that can help a person in such despair. I have known such a man.

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  7. Pingback: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Book 4 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize) | Dolce Bellezza

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