7.19.2015

THE SUNDAY REVIEW | A LITTLE LIFE - HANYA YANAGIHARA


Brace yourself for the most astonishing, challenging, upsetting, and profoundly moving book in many a season. An epic about love and friendship in the twenty-first century that goes into some of the darkest places fiction has ever traveled and yet somehow improbably breaks through into the light. Truly an amazement—and a great gift for its publisher.

When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they're broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.

In rich and resplendent prose, Yanagihara has fashioned a tragic and transcendent hymn to brotherly love, a masterful depiction of heartbreak, and a dark examination of the tyranny of memory and the limits of human endurance.
- Goodreads


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The first thing I need to say is that no matter what I write, my review will not do this book justice. The second thing I need to say is that this book will destroy you. And you will be grateful.

A Little Life is a story of friendship, of loyalty and of finding the strength to face the unimaginable - both good and bad. It begins with four friends, Willem, Jude, Malcolm and JB, who are college grads trying to make their way in New York. The story follows these four (mainly Jude and Willem) through nearly 40 years of their lives - but the story will spend as much time in the past as it does moving forward. Which it must in order for us to understand the gravity of decisions made and trust forged and broken. 

At the centre of this story is Jude St. Francis, a young man whose incredible intellect is housed in person who is so deeply damaged (physically, mentally and emotionally) that even his friends don't know the horrors his past contains.  

Jude is not easy to get to know. It isn't until about halfway through the book that you begin to see him take shape. Yanagihara took her time, she teased out his story one small thread at a time, just enough to keep the story moving and not a millimeter more. But despite her slow, deliberate and purposeful pace, I found that she addressed my questions almost as soon as I'd formed them in my mind. I'd wonder about a particular aspect of a character or the plot, and within half a chapter, she would have started providing answers (or at least discussed the lack thereof). The information she holds back she holds back because there's a better time and place in the story to reveal it, and I learned to trust that she knows what she's doing. 

Next to Jude, the most important character in the book is Willem. In contrast to Jude, who is aggressively private, Willem is open - sunny, even. Though he is promiscuous with women, he is fiercely loyal to his friends - above all to Jude. He is Jude's friend, roommate and protector. The book is formed around these two characters, and their steadfast friendship will serve as a beautiful counterpoint to the immense pain you will discover between the covers of this book.

Though the premise sounds simple - the story of four college friends growing up - it is anything but. This book tackles every shade of human experience and emotion you can imagine, along with a few you probably can't. So don't let the description fool you; this book will shock you. And I suspect that no matter who you are, there is a line, a page, a chapter (maybe even more than one) in this book that will stop you in your tracks and make you feel like Yanagihara wandered into your head and stole your innermost thoughts. As Alan Bennett put it:
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.” - Alan Bennett, The History Boys
This is an intensely personal book - not only because it deals in the secrets and personal lives of its characters, but because it will become personal to everyone who reads it. If you are human, this book will affect you.

It's also a very long book, and what makes it even more challenging is that, while the writing is a flowing style that would normally have you reading all night, the content won't allow for marathon reading. I found that I couldn't read more than 50 pages (100 tops but that was really hard) at a time. The emotional impact was such that it became physically uncomfortable to keep reading and I had to step out of the book and give myself some respite.

Which leads me into a very important piece of advice: Do not start this book when you're feeling vulnerable or have PMS. It is not that kind of book. It is beautiful and terrifying and you will feel, at times, like you can't take anymore. It will shake you to the core. It will tear out your heart and tap-dance on it with stilettos.  But it will be worth it. Every tear you shed, every desperate attempt to abandon these characters, every time you go back to them because you just have to know what happens - in the end this book is worth it. These characters are worth it. Because they come alive on the page, and you will be as invested in their lives as if they were part of your own family.

I read this book as a buddy read with Julianne from Outlandish Lit, and honestly I don't know if I could have handled it without her! I know it affected her deeply as well. She talks a little bit about her experience with the book in this post

A further word of warning: While I don't want to go into specifics as it's important to let Yanagihara unfold the story as she sees fit, this book tackles deeply upsetting and disturbing topics, and does so in great detail. If you find it difficult to read graphic content, or if you are triggered by the topic of abuse (and its considerable psychological aftermath), proceed with extreme caution!

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Book Title: A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Series: No
Edition: Hardback
Published By: Doubleday
Released: March 10, 2015
Genre: Fiction, Character-Driven
Pages: 720
Date Read: March 26 - April 18, 2015
Rating: 10/10

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