'A Little Life' Review: An Ode to Friendship
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
Yes, the tissues are necessary for this one.
My Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
737 pages; warning: the novel contains graphic descriptions of sexual abuse, violence and self harm.
A Little Life (2015), Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale of friendship, trauma and loss, could be described as the older, more damaged brother of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The story follows four college friends who move to New York together after graduating from an unnamed prestigious New England university. It is the ‘what comes next’ of coming-of-age, as the book follows the friends from college until middle age. The book begins by presenting the early years from the perspective of three of the four friends, Malcolm, JB and Willem, each of whom come from a different cultural background but share the wide eyed dreams of young men which is common to the bildungsroman.
A unique factor of the novel is that it catalogues the insecurities and self perceptions of the men through a multiple narrative structure. The reader is given access into the minds of the three young men as they think of each other and themselves. Each character's perspective, despite being in third person, brings you fully into his mind. We see the jealousy of each of the men, and also his love and respect for his friends. It is interesting to read the thoughts of one protagonist, assume their world view is correct and then have the same assumptions discounted or contradicted in the different perspective. It feels like really experiencing what it is to be part of a friend group, where perceptions of one another are clouded by each person’s experiences and personalities.
Art Source Illustration of an early moment in the novel, where the group finds themselves stuck on the roof of their grotty New York apartment, with no choice but to jump to get back to safety.
Though the first part of the book sets up a seemingly lighthearted post-college narrative punctuated by squabbles over philosophy and descriptions of the various social lives of the men, it becomes apparent that this is merely the scene setting to the mystery of the character of Jude. Of ambiguous ethnicity, sexuality and origins, his life becomes the enigma to which the rest of the novel unfolds. He is elevated to the protagonist from the second section in the novel where his point of view takes center stage and the atrocities of his past begin to unravel. Early in the book there was a glaring lack of Jude’s narrative until ‘Part II: The Postman’ where Jude is cemented as the protagonist. (NB: this is one of my favourite chapter titles of all time. If you know, you know.) He is not named as the speaker in this section but the reader already knows so much about Jude from the thoughts of the other men, that it is clear who is speaking. Due to the preexisting narrative set up the reader immediately clocks Jude as an unreliable narrator - we know of the high regard his friends hold him in and it becomes clear that he is suffering horifically from skewed self esteem and PTSD. The narrative transitions between voices are subtle, staying in the third person until later in the book when a fifth narrative voice is introduced. I often found myself reading for several pages until I could be sure who's head we were now in. This device did help it to feel like the men were all connected.
Yanagihara’s writing style is meticulous, with a rich and extensive vocabulary which made me feel like every word had been carefully and lovingly chosen to weave the tapestry of the rich novel. The parts of the book that made it feel alive were the small, relatable moments between the friends, where it became clear that despite everything, these were men filled with optimism and love for one another, but in a way that many people can relate to where conversation is filled with small moments and sarcastic comments - and as is often true in life, intention is not always carried over from the speaker to the recipient of these comments. It is the subtleties which make the book sing. I do wish that these subtle moments had carried over to the second half of the book which did feel at points like an attack of harrowing facts revealed one after another.
There is a distinct lack of female characters in the novel. Though when they appear they are written with care, no women are ever given the three dimensional treatment that the men are given. Usually this would be a dealbreaker for me but in this instance, it is forgivable. The story is that of the unthinkable abuse Jude has suffered at the hands of men, and as he gets older, the men who help him confront his past. More than this, the male cast of characters act as a subversion on the typical mascuine friendship which we are accustomed to seeing. In modern society, men are still encouraged to swallow their traumas and insecurities. It is refreshing to see a novel where men of all ages and sexualities want nothing more than to help their friend heal through the simple but powerful act of talking about his problems.
“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?” - Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
The story has often been criticised for its gratuitous chronology of violence and abuse that Jude experiences. The events that are revealed are indeed so horrific that it interferes with the realism of the novel, however when taking into account the other parts of the book that are less than realistic - the glaring lack of reference to key moments in American history, ambiguity of time periods and locations, the unfathomable success of central characters - the book can be considered to be a parable on the power of friendship in dealing with trauma. What is important is not that Jude recovers from his past, but that he is not alone in his struggle. 'A Little Life' is extreme, gut wrenching and emotional, yes, but at its heart it is about a man who is broken to extremes but continues to fight for happiness.