By Jenna Robertson
To say that reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is a traumatic experience would be an understatement. It is a lurking, gut-wrenching monster of a novel that will build you up to dizzying highs only to crush you moments later. Covering issues from relationships and careers, to sexuality and mental health, it is seven-hundred and twenty pages of an unrelenting exploration of life’s joys and tragedies.
The Little Life in question is that of Jude St. Francis, whose experiences are at first revealed solely through the eyes of those who seem to know him well. As the narratives of his friends have limitations, Jude’s story is revealed piece by heart-breaking piece over the course of three decades until at last his character is completely exposed. Friendships, careers and families change and evolve as A Little Life edges towards a bittersweet ending, but Jude remains an anchor for all characters, tethering them to the pathos that defines the novel.
Tragic though they are, Yanagihara’s characters are the kind that keep you awake, creep into your everyday thoughts, and cling to your conscience long after you have finished the last page. Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm are so finely drawn and developed that it is hard to imagine them as purely fictional, their lives so compelling that you want to believe in their existence as real people. The same goes for the plot of the novel, which is so expansive that in the hands of another author might have become melodramatic. Yanagihara manages to avoid this due to her use of fairy tale-like tropes, such as a lack of cultural or historical commentary and no mention of the time period. The integrity of her story lies in its timelessness.
Simple, gorgeous prose and intricate characterisation are the winning features of A Little Life, but the novel also probes important issues that are not to be overlooked. Race, sexuality, and abuse are just a few of the topics dealt with tactfully by Yanagihara, who never verges into the territory of preaching. No stranger to writing about sexual abuse (her debut novel The People in the Trees is written from the perspective of a convicted paedophile), Yanagihara treads carefully but manages to strike a powerful chord, writing on the subject with a poignancy that is upheld to the novel’s end.
Every once in a while a book emerges from a flurry of hyped-up Man Booker contenders and proves itself to be worth such attention and more. Hanya Yanagihara’s immense novel may not have been 2015’s winner, but for its unrelenting and raw exploration of relationships, abuse, and the typically 21st century struggle to achieve happiness, A Little Life earns its place as a modern classic in the making. Reading this book is a unique and emotionally draining experience, one that will make you shun the outside world until you’ve read every last word and are rewarded with the closure that so often evades our own little lives.