A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

I was drawn to this book on a dinner/window shopping trip to White City Westfields about a month ago. I had no money due to my current unemployment as I try desperately to get in to the publishing industry, and so initially set the tome back down like a good little girl and moved on.

Within about thirty seconds however, I’d picked it back up and paid.

There are two rather simple things that made A Little Life so irresistible to me: for a start, it’s a big book, it has weight and depth and as a ridiculously fast reader, this will always have some appeal for me; secondly, it is beautiful. I have the Picador edition that is based around an urban building as the backdrop for the title. It is powerful and strangely anonymous and fitted with the blurb which seems to focus on the first quarter of the book, a tale of four boys coming into themselves in New York.

This first section of the book introduces us to a quartet of characters who are all caught in a typical young adult identity crisis now that they’re moving into adulthood. Yanagihara writes of the race and sexuality of each boy in turn, the mystery of Jude’s being our first sign that he is something more than the other three. Almost every character in this book is gay or at least something other than hardline heterosexual. This was one thing my sister (who read this before me) and I had issues with – how often is it that you find a society of people who are all sexually ambiguous and free? Once I got over this though I began to worry about something else: about two years ago I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – a book I know is loved by many – but while I enjoyed the murder mystery element of it, I really struggled with the slightly pretentious constant scholarly references side, and for a while A Little Life looked like it might be venturing down this route.

I should clarify, A Secret History is a fantastic book in very much the same way as A Little Life is a fantastic book – it is beautifully written with strange and unpredictable characters and a complex storyline, but for the average reader, it can be somewhat patronizing. Tartt litters her narrative with references to writers and philosophers and theorists who us normal people will probably have heard of, but we won’t understand the significance of her words. I don’t know, maybe I’m just not smart enough.

Fortunately there is much more to A Little Life than this. It skates very close to the line for maybe fifty pages, but it’s almost as if Yanagihara is saying this is what the quartet could have been like if they didn’t have much bigger issues to deal with.

Around page seventy we get our first big revelation about Jude. Before this point he has been very much on the sidelines as we read about his three friends and their jobs and opinions on the world. It is at this point that your curiosity is well and truly peaked.

This then continues as small clues are presented to you the further into the book you get. It gets to a point when you are glad when first one, then another of the main characters is pushed to one side in favour of reading more about Jude. It becomes like a giant jigsaw puzzle and the more you begin to put together the pieces, the more desperate you become to see the whole picture.

I’ve never been scared or annoyed by spoilers – I will often flick through a book to just check how it goes, often to make sure I’m not wasting my time reading something that’s going to go down a route I don’t much like, but here I tried really hard to refrain.

When I was much younger I read Dave Pelzer’s My Story: A Child Called It, The Lost Boy, A Man Named Dave of course, these are stories of real events, but there is an echo of that here. Every time things seem to be going well for Jude, something comes along to ruin it. I’m a sucker for a happy ending and so even though I know that’s basically the point of the book – the whole idea of the lost cause being prevalent throughout, I still felt my heart break every time it happened.

There is a section about halfway through where this was particularly true and I remember texting my sister at about two in the morning when I reached a point where things where back on steady ground and telling her just how much I hated a particular character for how they’d acted.

This is followed by a section called ‘The Happy Years’ which is far more complex than it sounds. While there are certainly a few happy years in ‘The Happy Years’, the other years may be some of the worst.

A Little Life has two endings. The first, while probably happier, is not satisfying and it is for this reason that you are compelled to keep reading. The ultimate ending is in keeping with the book as a whole, and that’s all I will say about it.

Did I enjoy this book? ‘Enjoy’ is really not the right word for it. Did it speak to me in the same way as some of my more unusual favourites do? Not really. Is it for everyone? No, not at all. But was it a powerful read? Yes it was. Am I glad I read it? Definitely. Would I recommend it? Absolutely.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

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