Review: A Little Life

Posted on 28th August 2015 by Isabel Popple
Bookseller Isabel Popple reviews one of our favourite books of the year

Sometimes a book comes along which is so remarkable that you just can’t stop talking about it, a book that gets under your skin in a million little ways. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is that book right now.

There is no way that I could possibly do justice to how extraordinary this book is. It’s a book that, once you begin, demands to be read; a book which you simply have to keep reading, and even when you stop to do something else, is there in your mind, the story and characters ticking away, urging you to go back to them. My fellow bookseller Claire Salisbury has probably summed it up best: A Little Life “does that really clever thing of breaking your heart whilst making you grateful for it.”

The ‘little life’ of the title is that of central character Jude, though the story also revolves around the main people in his life: college friends JB, Willem and Malcolm in particular. We see them starting out after graduation, growing careers, creating new relationships, growing up and growing older, together and apart. Yet all of these everyday experiences are overshadowed by Jude’s past, a thing which he keeps hidden even from those closest to him, but which exerts a terrible control over his life and wellbeing. 

As Jude’s secrets are gradually, devastatingly revealed, Yanagihara paints what feels to be a painfully true portrait of how it might be inside the head of a person who feels about himself and believes about himself the things that Jude believes, no matter how much the people who love him try to tell him otherwise. He’s not haunted by ghosts so much as by hyenas – the only question that remains is whether he can outrun them.

So what is it that makes A Little Life so special? The answer to this is not something I can really put my finger on. Yanagihara has an amazing power of observation, especially of people, and the book is full of little things that struck home and made me think, 'yes, that is so right'. Set in a New York that is somehow timeless, it is also, of course, impeccably well written, with prose that is very accessible and characters with human hearts.

But what it ultimately does is incorporate a lifetime: even as things stay still, so do they change, the progression of thought and understanding and also, not-understanding. It touches on everything from what matters in life (and how that changes as we change) to the concept of healing and whether legacy really matters, but what probably remains with me strongest is the relationship between Jude and Willem – because if anything endures from our lives, if anything lives on beyond us, then surely it is the relationships we form around us, and the impact we have upon other people’s lives.

I’m not going to lie: some of the subject matter covered is very difficult, but Yanagihara treats it and Jude with impeccable care and attention to bring about an immense and heart-wrenching story. And it works. It really works. Our lives may be little, Yanagihara seems to say, but they are also big.


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