“A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara (2015) – taking repeated deep breaths

Be warned, this book comes with a general health warning. It is an absolutely visceral read. It tears at your heartstrings, rips at your emotions, at times plucks at your eyes like one of the vultures from ‘The Jungle Book’. On occasion, a bit like that scene in “The Martian” when you – me – come over all faint as Matt gamely has to down tools and sort his wound out (shudder), there are sections in this book that are virtually unreadable, when you have to tear your eyes off the written page and feel the need to physically put the book down and walk away from it.

It didn’t end up winning the Man Booker prize, but this work has swept onto the literary scene and run off with The Guardian readers’ top book for 2015, never mind garnering a whole gamut of nominations for various accolades. Skimming through the many My Favourite Books of 2015 reviews this month, I would guess that it is the book which appears most systematically and which receives the strongest praise (thanks, Sally, for your Powell’s Staff Top Five list, really enjoyed that).

At 720 pages, it already has the look and feel of “The Goldfinch” even before plunging into its pages, and there were several points when I was reminded of Donna Tartt’s style as the book progressed.

To say it’s not for the fainthearted is definitely understating it, and it wasn’t the cheeriest of festive reads over this Christmas period, but by golly it kept me reading into the small hours, and I found myself hoiking the heavy tome out and about with me in the hopes of getting a few more pages under my belt every time I left home. Now that I’m through the treadmill and have been spat out the other side I do agree with the critics who fall on the side of some judicious editing. There are times when as a reader you feel the ongoing variation on the theme to be a bit relentless and over-egged, erring on repetitive – but then I think that is precisely the whole point of this depiction of the unrolling of one very particular life.

In a nutshell then, aside from the ambitious length and the very distressing writing, this is an absolutely extraordinary read. Cleverly abstract with nary a mention of any current events to situate the book in a certain time period, it’s also true that it’s impossible to imagine this novel having been possible even a generation ago. It smacks very much of the here and now, and although I’ve only stepped off a plane twice so far to spend but a very few days in New York (sadly), I have the feeling that the overall atmosphere really does capture a certain flavor of the “capital” of all capital cities.

The notion of the nuclear family taking ‘second place’ to the family you create as you go through life comes through very strongly too, and I was fascinated by the crucial nature of support coming from friends when push comes to shove. I was very slightly unconvinced of the staying power of our four main men, as in all those pages we don’t really get a sense of how such enduring friendships would have been made in the first place, but hey, far be it from me to go casting aspersions. Women also play an almost unnecessary part in the book – I almost felt an apocalyptic sense of the end of the world not so far ahead of the ending of this novel, wondering will any more babies eventually ever be made. Not a criticism, don’t misread me, just saying…

It did read very much like a fable to me in parts: is it really believable that someone would have so much ‘bad luck’ as to encounter the people our hero did one after the other with barely a single ounce of goodness in them every time? It is all terribly black and white, with not a shade of grey anywhere. And is it pushing it a bit that everyone in the story is so remarkably talented or stunningly good looking – or popping off to Paris and on other exotic holidays throughout? Don’t get me wrong, the beauty of this book is actually that as you are reading every word comes across as absolutely credible, and even while it is haunting you afterwards that is no real serious detraction either – so hats off to Ms Yanagihara, basically.

Jude is a character who will remain sharply etched in our collective memories for a very long time to come. It’s our book group meeting next week, and this was our Christmas read, so I am all ears to hear what everyone else thought about it. I would also love to be a fly buzzing on the wall in a hundred years to see how “A Little Life” is perceived then. What’s certain is that it has struck an enormous chord with the public today and deeply reflects our current society. And to close, I’d agree wholeheartedly with and thankfully quote Dianah H. from Powells (which I’d love to visit one day too): “it broke my heart into a million tiny jagged pieces, but I loved every excruciating minute of it”.

Rating : a resounding ‘taking no prisoners’ 10/10

2016 : Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Fiction; 2015 : Man Booker Prize shortlist, National Book Award Finalist for Fiction, Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction

Images taken from here and here.
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28 Responses to “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara (2015) – taking repeated deep breaths

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  4. Tracey Cooper says:

    I too have just finished this book and it is good to know we are still reading the same stuff after cutting our literary teeth on those Mary Stewarts from lower school library.
    I agree with your comments and didn’t want to put it down. I felt the sense of permanent and deep damage following abuse was so powerfully portrayed.
    I am loving the blog and now have loads of books on my wish list having read your reviews

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mary Stewart yes indeed! Hey, seem to remember getting thrown out of that library for too much chattering, not to mention being sent to the front of assembly for more of the same. Some things never change, eh? I’m so glad to read your comment and see that we felt the same way. Keen of course to know what else you are reading… will email you v soon for a catch up too, and hope to see you earlier rather than later. Love to all, xxx


  5. This sounds amazing, but I think I’ll wait for a time when I judge myself strong enough to take it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Caroline B says:

    Great review Nicola! Couldn’t agree with you more. Looking forward to our discussion next week!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Can’t wait to hear what everyone thinks of it. Was a bit cheeky posting beforehand, but have spent much of the day writing around Valentine’s Day and romantic things to do in Paris, so I suddenly had the urge to go in and press “send” – from one extreme to another… !


  7. Kat says:

    I do get quite wary around books like these, partially because will I be able to cope with the distressing writing – or, more so – if I like what I read, what does that say about me? However, I’ve not come across many reads that have made me uncomfortable; the only one that comes to mind is Misery by Stephen King in one particular scene. And, if this is such a terrific book, then I’ve got to give it a try myself, but thank you for the warning in advance. Now I know what I’ll be getting into!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read any Stephen King at all yet but did see this years ago, it’s with Kathy Bates isn’t it? Can’t even imagine reading those pages as can still remember not watching the scene in the film! The thing with A Little Life is that the young man we follow has suffered terrible things as a child (without wishing to spoil at all, but think it’s mentioned on most reviews etc), and as well as being unimaginable, it’s the repercussions on his adult life that are deeply upsetting to follow. The author writes so well that you can’t put the book down although a part of you just wants to toss it away. So it’s a really tough read but also very strong and really makes you question human nature and relationships etc etc. But a brilliant book. Hope I haven’t put you off any more than before…!!!!


  8. I read this last summer (at the peak of the “hype”, I guess) and I think it’s going to be a book which will stay with me. I loved the fairytale/fable atmosphere – it gives the story such a timeless quality. It’s an emotional sledgehammer though!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. alison41 says:

    I’m dying to read it but not too sure it will come my way – maybe, just maybe, my local Library will oblige. Thanks for a gr3at review.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. TimPa59 says:

    NY is not the capital of the US. Pernickerty or what. Otherwise another fabbo review! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Hey Tim, I’m going to throw a couple of “” “” in to my ‘capital c*ck-up’, there is no hope, is there!! Just don’t go asking me to list the 52 states… what are you reading at the mo?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. TimPa59 says:

    ‘The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin’ by Steven Lee Myers. Fairly dry and certainly sobering. Intriguing, but doesn’t quite tug at the heartstrings. He was born and bred in St Petersburgh, not the capital city. Not one for the Book Club. I hope to get on to one of your wonderful recommendations v soon! T

    Liked by 1 person

    • And while you delve into the ‘Machinations of Putin’ I am headlong 400 pages into ‘War & Peace’ finally, and it’s the bees knees. Best bit is watching people surreptitiously eye up the massive tome when I dip into it on the metro. Weighs a ton.
      Set all over Russia and now and again in the capital city as well as St Petersburgh (je crois…).

      Liked by 1 person

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  14. Fascinating review, I was somewhat surprised by the 10/10 so I’m really curious to see how despite the little ‘flaws’ you mentioned you gave it such a high score! Planning on reading it as soon as I graduate…Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I sometimes get a bit carried away with high scoring – ever the optimist! – but this one definitely merits the top rating. It’s so ambitious, yet the author really pulls it off – and pulls the reader in. Will be interested to read what you think of it alongside so much highbrow reading that you are coming across through your studies too.


  15. Denise says:

    I knew I’d saved your review somewhere, as I wanted to come back to it after finishing reading… I think that’s a good point, even though the history of the book is rather coy, the main characters ridiculously successful, the luck of Jude exceptionally bad, it was still on another level very credible. I hadn’t thought of it that way – the flaws actually made the book’s good points finer.
    That said, it was still too long! I’d straightaway forgive all the faults and frustrations for fewer pages.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We had a good old chat about this at the book group meeting. Overall everyone was just so impressed by being drawn in by the writing and the emotional sweep of the novel that the length was condoned rather than condemned in the end, but you are right that it really is a very long and drawn out read. Completely agree with you on the bad luck bit too – it’s not very reassuring on the human nature front, is it…


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