A Little Life: A Not So Small Tale of Male Friendship And What It Is To Be Human

Reader I am in a pickle. A Little Life is a book so epic in its scope, so challenging in its subject matter and frankly so devastating that the simple act of writing a review of it has me stumped. Where do I begin? How do I do this modern classic (and internet favourite) justice? And how do I manage to not get overly emotional as I rake over its most heart wrenching moments? 

Every time I posted about the fact I was reading this I was amazed by the messages and comments I received, all largely positive, many effusive in their praise. Discussing this book with other bibliophiles and bookstagrammers seemed to open up some very serious and passionate debate. What can I say about this book that is fresh, new or even that interesting?

Let’s start somewhere not so original (for a review at least) – what is the book about?

A Little Life tells the story of four college friends who move to New York following their graduation. As the years pass their relationships become deeper or, for some, much darker. As their lives and careers develop they grow closure and further apart. 

Jude acts as the nucleus of the group, but he harbours dark secrets which threaten not only his wellbeing but his relationships with those he holds closest. 

One of my main take aways from the novel was the power and importance of relationships, of your tribe. So I’m cheating a bit with this review and I have roped in two fantastic bookstagrammers to help. 

Firstly Charl from @nobooksgiven, who the first time she met me impressed on me the absolute necessity of reading this book. It’s in her top three reads (and given the amount she reads that is an achievement). She shares why this book means so much to her: 

I loved it because I thought the author tackled the issues so head on, but also not. You read so many books which feature rape, childhood abuse and domestic violence that split into two categories, graphic or non graphic. And neither are necessary to get to the root of the problem. Yanagihara managed to convey the awful things in neither an overly graphic nor a vague way.”

So I could not have tackled this book on my own so I was delighted to do a mini readalong with my good friend Dannie (@blottedinkbooks on insta is worth a gander as she has some insightful reviews all delivered with humour and candor). 

A Little Life was so far from my usual reads, in so many ways. It was daunting, intimidating in both scale and subject matter. I’d been warned many times that I would need ice-cream and Kleenex to make it through. And yes, there are triggering elements, storylines not for the faint of heart which tackle child abuse, drug addiction, self-harm, domestic violence, matters which are handled with respect but not sugar-coated, nothing making them more palatable. It was uncomfortable to read in places. 

But for me, the thing that drew me in, that allowed me to step out of my comfort zone, was the fact that the characters are so vivid, so well crafted, that I felt I truly knew them. I was emotionally invested. I had to follow their journey even when it got hard, because that’s what true friendship is – that is what you experience with Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm. Even when it gets tough, you hang in there, for hopes of better. 

Never have I read a book where the back stories are so meticulously plotted, the characters so real that I truly forgot I wasn’t reading a biography. 

A powerful, emotional opus, that has you reeling, catching breath by the end.

And me? Well you might be able to tell that I was totally blown away by this book. Its length and the sheer scope of the tale it tells left me feeling like I had been living along side Jude, Wilhelm, JB and Malcolm. Their pain was my pain, their triumphs were my triumphs; I loved, laughed and cried alongside them. The characters are so real and really this whole novel is a masterclass in how to write characters. 

The writing is also hugely visceral – immersing you in the world of these friends. There is a moment in which a character is involved in a crash – at the moment this was described (or rather described startlingly sparsely) I took in a deep breath – also feeling the impact of the car. This was just one moment – throughout my reading I went from anxious, scared, shocked and appalled. Reading A Little Life is an emotionally, and physically, exhausting experience. You’re in it – you become a part of the narrative. 

Yanagihara takes on triggering and difficult issues; race, class, abuse/trauma, mental illness, family, male friendship and adoption. The scope of this book is as vast and deep as its impact on the reader. And yet the gentleness of the prose and the timescale of the book somewhat softens the impact. 

Yanagihara writes about abuse with the most sensitive of touches, rarely giving graphic descriptions but rather giving hints to the reader as to the scale of the treatment which Jude has endured. This faith in the reader is brave but also rewarding: I felt more connected to Jude and his experience as I felt that the narrative was reflecting back the way in which he would have told his story if he were able to. Far from feeling heavy and claustrophobic, like walking through a particularly dark sticky treacle, it was much more airy (perhaps like one of the many delicious bakes that Jude seems to produce?)

The greatest gift that Yanagihara provides is the privilege of viewing from on high, and then startlingly close, the unfolding of these characters’ lives. At moments it feels as though this is happening in real time. Our view gives God-like omniscience, yet we are hopeless to do anything to help, cajole or frankly scream at the characters as they move through their little lives.

Flaws? Of course there are some. It seems impossible that four college friends could be so successful and famous (something which Dannie almost commented on). Malcolm, a character with so much promise, is largely forgotten towards the end of the book. 

In summary A Little Life will consume your life as you read it. Harrowing and life affirming in equal measure, you will be frustrated, devastated and elated. I can almost guarantee that you will fall in love. 

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