[Book Review] Hanya Yanagihara's 'A Little Life'
TW/ CW: Mentions of self-harm, depression, sexual violence, trauma
The bigger questions in life like the alienating journey of traversing adulthood, the loneliness that creeps up despite being surrounded by familiar faces, and how the past shapes our future, are often left unanswered and obscure.
Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life goes into the nooks and corners of adulthood, loneliness, parenthood, friendship, the skeletons of the past haunting the present, and so on. What emerges is a poignant tale of four friends, Jude, Wilhelm, JB, and Malcolm, who meet in their youth and grow into adulthood. Yanagihara’s masterful prose, her awfully broken characters, unreliable narrators, and disjointed timeline of events makes this novel utterly compelling.
Yanagihara paints a kaleidoscopic panorama of emotions in A Little Life, ranging from the euphoric joy of being chosen as a son, to the need to inflict pain on oneself to feel one deserves happiness, to the innocent laughter with friends that one shares on a Sunday afternoon, without realizing that those memories would someday be left behind.
Though the story is told by different characters at alternate intervals, it is Jude’s story. He had trudged through the first fifteen years of his life, where he had experienced every horror imaginable to meet three amazing friends: JB, Malcolm, and Wilhelm, who would grow to be his best friends and the love of his life. While friendship is ideally the most unselfish bond that only gives and asks for nothing in return, Yanagihara tests her characters to the limits to explore the unsaid terms and conditions of friendship.
The vulnerabilities of the characters lay exposed on every page of the novel. I felt the heart-wrenching events to my core, as Yanagihara narrated events from inside the characters' minds. The reader gets a glimpse of the lowest moments from their bedroom to the bathroom, their darkest secrets, and their deepest fears. Every emotion they feel, no matter how grotesque, is laid bare in the novel. The graphic descriptions of self-inflicted wounds, unspeakable acts of sexual violence, and emotionally scarring monologues could be triggering for some readers.
Since the novel is very character-centric, most of the underlying themes like parenthood, adulting, intimacy, love, and friendship are explored from Jude’s point of view. Is the physical act of sex the most essential part of a relationship? Hanya Yanagihara spoke of a different kind of intimacy through her characters. The shared intimate moments like secret gestures, gentle hand-holding, cuddling after a long day, forehead touches, feathery kisses, tangled sleeping bodies are often ignored and placed second to sex. For some individuals, these are the sustaining pillars of a relationship.
The secondary characters were vital to understanding Jude. They made Jude’s presence more real, acting as mirrors to perceive Jude from multiple angles. The ones who have undergone life-altering traumatic incidents try their hardest to be ‘normal’, to be accepted, to belong in a clique. The novel brings in uncomfortable elements like the discomfort of healing. When a person heals from trauma, they miss the comfort of living with that mental disorder. The novel softly implies that one cannot fully heal from trauma. It is an ongoing process that rises and falls like waves.
It is ironic how we come into this world alone, die alone, yet we need social connections to survive. The novel captures the mundane moments in relationships, focusing on the little things; the domestic tasks, and even shared memories that make life worth living.
Can we save our friend who wants to die? Isn’t it selfish to ask them to stay only for our sake? Can we ‘love’ trauma away?
Yanagihara writes an honest depiction of grief and loneliness, the two often overlapping and running in currents throughout her novel. The novel is filled with unimaginable depictions of pain and suffering. I wanted to wrap the characters in a hug full of warmth, yet would never dare to do so, for fear of inflicting more scars on their already fragile mind. While I have read my fair share of emotionally taxing novels, A Little Life took me on a trip I had not signed up for.
Shaona is currently pursuing her Bachelors in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University. When she is not procrastinating or reading in cozy spots, she can be found sampling desserts from local cafes and daydreaming about traveling the world. She loves to cycle on random lanes, turning wherever the wind takes her.