I was warned, several times, before I even started Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life: it is not an easy one to read. And within the first 50 pages (of a hefty 750 total), it became obvious just how true those warnings were. This is a harrowing, challenging book, dealing with a laundry list of painful topics (addiction, abuse, self-harm, trauma, suicide, injury, death, and on and on and on) of which even one on its own would be hard to read. Put them all together with the author's uniquely evocative way with words and her uncanny ability for both a sense of place and character, this is a book that, despite breaking your heart, you won’t be able to put down.
The story follows a group of four friends, from their meeting in college through the rest of their adult lives, occasionally looping back to their childhoods. There’s J.B., an artist; Malcolm, an architect; Willem, an actor; and finally Jude, a lawyer, whose troubled past is inextricably tied to all of their presents and futures.
All four of them have to deal considerably with their respective careers and ambitions, but it’s not a book about that. They have to deal with love, but it’s not a book about that either. They deal with their childhoods and traumas and scars (especially Jude), and how those things meld together to shape them into the adults the reader watches them become, but that’s not what the book is about either, at least not entirely. This is a book about life itself, and all the parts and pieces of it that we experience – things that have already happened, and things that will happen, and ambition and failure and love and acceptance and pain, and most importantly of all, the people that you navigate those things with. It’s not an easy book to sum up, but for me, this quote comes closest:
“Life was scary; it was unknowable. Even Malcolm’s money wouldn’t immunize him completely. Life would happen to him, and he would have to try to answer it, just like the rest of them. They all… sought comfort, something that was theirs alone, something to hold off the terrifying largeness, the impossibility, of the world, of the relentlessness of its minutes, its hours, its days.” (p. 500)
This book is hard, and long, but brilliant, and if you think you can endure it, I can’t recommend it enough. For me, it was one of those rare books that I will remember the experience of reading for a very long time to come.