I was warned by several people that this book would break me over the course of 700+ pages and they were absolutely right. A Little Life is a gut-wrenching epic that doesn’t let up the misery for even a second. I, of course, loved it because I love miserable books.
Note: it’s difficult to talk about this one without a certain degree of spoilers. I’ve not mentioned specifics or character names in relation to things that happen, but this review will give you an overall idea of some of the events that take place. Also TW for mention of child abuse and abusive relationships throughout this whole review (and book)
The story takes place over seven decades and largely focuses on four friends; Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB. It’s a diverse group, in terms of ethnicity, sexuality and experience. Jude remains pretty much unknown to the others for most of the story but the narrative weaves in details about the horrific abuse he suffered as a child. We see the four of them meet at college and grow up to achieve their dreams- or not in some cases- whilst navigating the difficulties of a friendship with someone who is so clearly hurting, and remains the core of the group, but refuses to left anyone in.
I read somewhere that someone had described A Little Life as the ‘great gay novel’ and it’s true that queer relationships of many kinds are represented on page (some healthily, others not) but I think it would be a disservice to imply that people can come here looking for a happy ending. There are pretty much none. There are some beautiful moments, and I don’t want to give away any more than I need to, but the overall tone of the novel is not for people who love a bit of light fluff. I should point out that neither the book, nor this review, are #ownvoices on this subject so obviously take my opinions with the scepticism they deserve; but I felt the topics of coming out in the public eye were dealt with critically and well and a breadth of different ‘healthiness’ of relationships was represented. Perhaps we’re falling in to the territory of the ‘kill your gays’ trope but as the majority of the characters are queer and no death is designed to further the story of a straight character it feels like it fits within the tone of the narrative. (Seriously no happy endings here. Even misery-loving me was yelling at the page)
I did have one glaring issue with the book that I was unable to forgive though and it kind of tainted the experience for me. I understand that the book, whilst being predominantly in third person, embodies the point of view and inner monologues of each of the characters, mainly Jude and Willem, I thought it was completely irresponsible of the author to refer to a sexual act between a nine-twelve year old boy and a middle aged man as ‘sex’. It’s rape, either call it that or don’t name it. It actually made me really angry to see it put down on a page as ‘they had sex’ because I feel like that’s a gross misuse of a writers power to challenge these things. That word shouldn’t have been anywhere near that situation, for a writer as clearly talented as Hanya Yanagihara it should have been possible to write around calling it sex. It left a bad taste in my mouth and it kind of tipped the balance in to some parts being almost like trauma porn.
Still, it is an extraordinary book and I’m not surprised it’s such a bestseller, despite the length of it and how harrowing it is. It covers everything from abusive relationships to self harm to suicide to child abuse to child prostitution to sexually transmitted diseases to friendships to gay relationships (spoiler alert: not one gay or bisexual character contracts or dies from an STI which is a welcome break from a harmful stereotype there). It’s one that I would say needs to be experienced if the subject matter appeals- it would be triggering to a lot of people and like I said before this is not one for people who value happy endings. I loved it, but I am a depressing-narrative-enthusiast.