Book Review: A Little Life

By: Kgosi Motsoane

Hanya Yanagihara’s second offering A Little Life is an all-consuming epic novel that establishes an indubitable case for the conversation of the novel as a critical medium for helping us tap into the deepest darkest alcoves of our lives.

This book is both harrowing & healing; a black hole with flashes of brilliant blinding light. 

A big, albeit, broken-hearted book about the prisons of trauma and the complex miracle of friendship, A Little Life follows the life of four friends, Malcolm, JB, Willem and at their bedrock, a self-shrinking and anxious overthinker young man named Jude St Francis. Yanagihara begins their story in their 20s, having completed their degrees and driven to make it in the world. Yanagihara’s ability to capture the intricates of friendship and weaving them into something that reads as deep friendships can often feel; capable of withstanding anything yet still delicate. We see this in the small graces when Jude notices the small apartment, he and Willem are viewing features a one closet to which Willem replies “That’s okay, I have nothing to put in it anyway” to the smiling echo of Jude’s “Neither do I”. We also see in later in the book in the ugliness of JB’s mockery of Jude’s physical disability in reaction to an intervention for the drug-dependent toxic relationship he finds himself in, how the scars of that moment never fully heal with the friendship enduring regardless; merely changing around each moment. 

Yanagihara’s exploration the question “what is left behind when a person has experienced the traumas of sexual abuse, poverty, and operatic suffering?” remains with us relentlessly as the ensemble that ignite the story step back as the inconsolable life of Jude St Francis is revealed to us in vignettes scattered throughout the book and in the story’s second act ‘The Postman’. Jude’s upbringing in a Christian Monastery from the day he is found in the middle of winter abandoned near a dumpster opens is acts as expose on the ways in which we treat the most vulnerable amongst. How he grows through it all becomes her testament for our ability to endure. And if and to what extent do we fully recover from such traumas becomes the essence of her quest. I read an interview where Yanagihara talks about the feedback she received from her editors to pull back some of the excesses of pain that she puts Jude and her other characters through, to which she refused – because nothing she writes is ever held back. 

Jude comes as close to a full life as his immensely violent past allows him, he has surrogated the best parts of his life to the core people in his life; the famous three, Andy – who’s vocation as Jude’s physician, places him as the only person who comes closest to knowing the extent of Jude’s violent past; Harold his law professor & Julia his wife whom, in one of the books most satisfying and euphoric moments offer to adopt Jude as a 30th birthday gift. These people bound together by their love for Jude and Jude’s own   l in many ways become devotees of Jude – the modern-day Patron Saint of lost causes. There is also an additional character whom Yanagihara has managed to cleverly insert into the book, us the readers. She makes it impossible for us to close the book and continue with our lives. She uses friendship to reveal all that it is capable of; destruction, endless redemption, and its ability alter the very essence of love and human experience itself. 

Ultimately, the two most subversive things Hanya show us are that healing doesn’t end and that there are certain traumas, when experienced, have the power to define our lives both in ugly and beautiful ways alike. She also reminds us that men have the capacity to forsake their sexualities, class, politics and societal expectations for the connections they can experience. I have never read a book as dark and bright as this.

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