Book Review: A Little Life

Thursday 17 September 2015 by

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara, Book, Reading, Man Booker 2015A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Published by Picador

When four graduates 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.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.


If you’re not emotionally exhausted enough by the last few reads, then be prepared to be totally beaten up by A Little Life. The hot favourite to win the Man Booker, this book has become a cult success online, but it really it unutterably relentless with the emotional bombardment.

Each chapter switches between perspectives amongst the large cast. However, the main character is Jude, around whom everyone hovers. Jude is painfully scarred – physically and mentally – and it is on this that the whole book hinges.

There is a lot to take in – you have to be wary of which character you’re following in each chapter, but little by little, they peel back the layers of their story. When I say it goes from bad to worse, I really mean it. Poor Jude never catches a break. It’s like some terrible tragedy.

This book is beautiful, mind. Yanagihara is a fantastic writer, and you can well see why it is a favourite (though it’s not my choice), and the story soars with its exquisite beauty. I found myself lost in the story and struggling to come back to reality – craving the moment I could return to it. Jude – poor, damaged Jude – is a fantastic protagonist. He is so complex that you can’t even hope to plumb the depths in the 720 pages you’re given. The other characters are also imagined with great flair – they are multifaceted, and feel real, bringing their own qualities and faults to the storyline.

There is also a strong sense of place with this novel. You tour New York with them, and get a strong sense of place – sights, smells and sounds. It’s epic, as much a character itself as the others. I love New York, and this is a love letter to the city.

I can’t quite put my finger on what is so good about this book. Perhaps that’s why it’s so good – it grasps on to you, but does so gently, without being too abrasive or overconfident. It is as shy and nervous as Jude, but as loveable as well. A strong contender.

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