A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I posted this review on Goodreads in January 2016 (such a long time ago) and was surprised to see recently that I never posted it here on my website. I just happened to reread it lately and have some thoughts … but in order to post them on Goodreads, I need to replace the old review with the new one. So, that’s another good reason for posting this here.
A deeply emotional, beautifully written novel: full, complex and harrowing. It speaks with depth about our relationships of friendship and love, and also our relationship with life itself, told across such a substantial time period that gives an affecting weight to this novel about a character who I fell in love with, but cannot love himself.
*Review with spoilers (really, this is written for others who have read the book)*
I forgive you, Hanya, really I do: for putting me through the wringer like the last season of Six Feet Under, for making me cry aloud with a reading experience I don’t recall having gone through, for revealing or inflicting so much pain on your protagonist that I wondered if it would be worth it. But of course it was, though in a way too deep and complex to describe in a book review. To get some idea of that, someone would have to read the book themselves, and then all of us would have our own individual responses and reactions, but I’m pretty sure that yes, we would all forgive you.
I downloaded Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life to read on holidays because I wanted something substantial to read; I’d read about the book’s awards; I like her name (c’mon, admit it; it’s a cool name); and I was intrigued by what little I’d heard about the book: about four friends, some of them gay, in and around New York City. While I was trying to avoid reading any substantial reviews (and thus influence my reading), I did read a line about her cruelty to her characters, and a pal on Facebook mentioned he found it too hard to read or finish.
So, my experience of the book was interesting in light of this. I was first interested in her storytelling. The last major novel I’d read, Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, was so wordy, with huge long sections and chapters, without break, I found it a relief that Yanagihara’s storytelling seems straightforward and clear, moving back and forth between focusing on different characters, and expertly and unusually moving into the second-person at times (with one character addressing another). There is a clear focus on a particular time period in the character’s lives, with stories from the past slowly and expertly revealed, and the breadth of time portrayed, taking the characters from late teens to late middle-age, gives such a feeling of substance: of complex lives lived, and of the not inconsiderable genius to capture them in such an ambitious novel. I also found her writing addictive, and because I was so interested in her characters and stories, I found the book hard to put down.
After the initial impression that her writing was straightforward, I was then more and more impressed with how beautiful it is. It’s not showy but occasionally moves into unusual metaphor and lovely poetic qualities, though what’s most impressive is how she employs it: she is interested in describing emotional lives, and friendships, the ways we become closer and move away from each other, as well as memory and the passage of time. After I read the book, I read an interview where she spoke of her specific intentions to write about the inability of men to communicate with each other, a lack of an emotional vocabulary, and I definitely felt this through the whole book without being able to actually say what was happening. So masterful.
And the story! My god. I didn’t expect it to be so emotional and intense, and build and build. I found myself with physical reactions, cringing and revulsed, nearly cried out to stop one character from doing something and, yes, I was crying or near tears many times (although flying does make me a bit emotional).
It is an incredible and powerful story, not one I’ve come across or read about before. In fact, about three-quarters into the book, I did start to wonder whether the author was being too cruel to her protagonist: how much pain and misfortune can one person take? Not one, two, or three trials, but I’d count five. FIVE.
It was then that I felt a contradiction: because the emotions feel so real and authentic, the intelligence so lively and grounded in an understanding of how people move around us, I found myself questioning the shape of the story, the incredible tragedy of the main character, revealed and compounded, and even his friends: ridiculously successful in their chosen careers. In the end, it allowed me to appreciate the novel more by thinking of it as a fable, a novel, a fairy tale of sorts, so the exaggeration is more myth than melodrama.
A final comment is about the multiracial cast of characters of various sexualities. I came of age reading gay literature, written by gay men, as well as writing by those of us from different ethnic backgrounds exploring (and celebrating) our cultural backgrounds. So, a Japanese-American woman writer crossing genders to write about men, with characters who are naturally from a diversity of cultural backgrounds, and all expressing complex sexualities seems to represent a brand, new world for me.
I detected not a false note, and to have created a protagonist (as I discovered, this book involves a group of four friends, but the story really belongs to one of them) whose sexuality is a result of circumstance and emotional connection (not from a gene or orientation) also feels particularly contemporary, even moreso because the writing and themes aren’t forced with a political imperative, but come from a literary imperative to create a powerful story.
I’m still a bit stunned by this book. Some books I love because I admire them, or the writing, or I like the themes and stories. This book surprised me, drew me in and has left me emotionally exhausted. Phew.
What did you think?