Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara has been awaiting my attention, quietly on my Kindle, for well over a year. It is not the only book waiting there by a long way. It is, however, one of the few I have skimmed past a little too quickly and a little too often. It is one of those I frequently have glanced at and thought ‘Not now, the time isn’t right.’

It is probably the only book I have thought about deleting, unread.

In short the thought of this book has unnerved and, quite frankly, scared me.

As a teacher of young, vulnerable children, as a mother of four, I wasn’t at all sure I wanted to read this book. I couldn’t find a calm period in our hectic lives when I felt ready to handle the subject matter. When is a good time to tackle a book charting the lifelong effects of sustained and wide reaching childhood abuse? Never, it seemed.

I was also, consciously and subconsciously, questioning whether this book should even have been written. Was it morally right to make this kind of experience into fiction, into some kind of entertainment?

And yet this book has been recommended to me so many times, by so many people. And every time they have been people with kindness, compassion and intelligence at their very core. It was one of these readers who persuaded me to stop skimming past and take a chance.

So almost 2 weeks ago I took the chance. I promised myself I could break my unwritten rule and do the thing I find so inexplicably hard; DNF if need be.

I started to read.

On Saturday I finished, wondering as I reached the end why it was I had waited so long.

This book has taken me over a week to read. In a normal reading week I usually get through 2 -3 books. Practically giving up on TV and having a husband who works away in the week has seen my reading steadily increase in the past 2 years. A Little Life has taken me significantly longer to read than any other book in recent times. This is not to do with its 800+ pages, and everything to do with it’s message.

Even if I possessed days of free reading time I couldn’t have read this book any faster than I did. It was the intensity of this book, much more than it’s length, that slowed my pace. The feelings and empathy that were provoked within me demanded that I took time out. Time to break away, digest, grieve and reflect. This book is beautiful, powerful and for all that it is hard hitting and raw, and sometimes just too painful to assimilate.

At first glance this book is about the relationship between four college friends, at the beginning of their professional lives, living in NYC. Malcolm, a privileged black and talented young architect, trying to escape his parents shadow. Willem, a young actor, alone in the world after the death of his brother and parents. JB, a fiery gay artist, feted and pampered by his matriarchal family. Jude, a brilliant young lawyer, physically disabled, secretive and watchful.

Before too long the focus shifts to Jude, for this is Jude’s story. It is the story of his childhood trauma, abuse so complex and far reaching it touches every inch of his day to day life. His choice of apartment, choice of career; all touched by his past experiences.

This novel is possibly the most comprehensive and heartbreakingly powerful of portrait of abuse you likely to come across. Within it Yanagihara explores the lifelong relationship Jude has with self harm. She charts it’s accidental beginnings, how it becomes a way of using physical pain to reset his emotional terror. Crucially, she represents it’s non linear nature. This is not a static relationship, like other more acceptable and conventional bonds. Jude’s relationship with self harm ebbs and flows. It changes it’s form depending on opportunity and circumstance, but it never ends.

Throughout the novel we see Jude attempting to build circles of trust, investing in relationships that, despite his desperate desires, can never be complete due to his lack of self worth. His career sky rockets and yet he continues to views himself through the past’s tainted eyes. He feels a constant need to apologise, to justify and readjust, living with the ‘creature’ of abuse inside, always one step away from fight or flight. Even pleasure causes pain; his certain fear of when will the past catch up with the present is never far away. and often overwhelming.

The narrative also explores the complex relationship that exists between abused and abusers. We come to appreciate that when abuse has been not only sustained, but delivered at the hands of caregiver, then victims feel their personality is shaped by their experiences. Jude feels that some positive parts of his life can be attributed to his abuser, and this is an ongoing struggle of acceptance. Within this story is contained the very best and the very worst of human nature. There is rarely black or white, just deepening shades of grey, and thankfully some blinding flashes of lightness.

Survival from abuse is not portrayed as a simple upward recovery. For Jude, we read about many ‘rock bottoms’, many triggers, many simple solutions that turn out to be anything but. There are heart rending explorations of future relationships, where patterns of abuse repeat themselves in a way Jude sees as inevitable.

And yet Jude is not without kindness in his life. Throughout the novel, despite his difficulties, Jude has friends, people who care deeply. For the reader these characters fulfil a number of functions. On a practical level they allow us some perspective. They provide a break from the deeply complex nature of Jude’s life and thoughts. They allow us to breathe, pause and provide colour, sometimes humour. They are a mirror that reflect the best of Jude, reflecting his innate brilliance, intelligence and potential. They allow us to see beyond the abused individual and appreciate other qualities that define him.

More than this they are ripples in Jude’s pond. Their presence and reactions to his actions and thoughts allow Yanagihara to explore and portray, yet again, the real and far reaching effects of abuse. We see the ever patient Willem, his closest friend, accept the darkness within Jude and hold it lightly in his hand, waiting patiently for Jude to reveal his truths. Our heart breaks when Jude begs friends to kept terrible secrets, asking them to carry burdens too hard to bear.

I finished this book 4 days ago and before I could even begin to write any kind review I needed time to pause and reflect. Part of me wondered whether I was even able or entitled to write a review. Yet it was inevitable I would. This novel might have broke my heart multiple times but it won’t leave me in a hurry. Whether I have a produced a review to do it justice is entirely another matter.

Jude has been in my head pretty much constantly since I left his world. So many thoughts, perspectives and questions going round and round. And I have been returning again and again to the fact that Jude was a character, who despite his terrible experiences, was thrown the lifeline of opportunity. He was rescued, he was educated, he had people who believed in him, who advocated for him; good, unselfish friends who could see beyond the scars and kept coming back.

And I find myself asking “What of those who don’t have this opportunity? What becomes of those who don’t have advocates and aren’s rescued?”

Because that is the real tragedy of this book. The fact that this isn’t an isolated story, one that never happens in the real world. It does every day. And not all individuals, children or adults, have Jude’s opportunities. Not all have a voice, have ears that will listen, have the skills or financial support to find their path. What happens to those individuals?

And that is why Yanaghari and authors like her have the right to create such stories. In a recent Guardian article, Yanagahari suggest that her intention in writing this book was never to shock or provoke. She believes “that extreme lives exist and therefore should be present in literature.” So while abuse is some ones reality, some one has to keep documenting it, talking about it, bringing it into the public consciousness. Despite my initial concerns this book never feels gratuitous or exploitative. It does shock, take your breath away and makes you think, really think, about the unrelenting effects of abuse. It raise the stakes of awareness like nothing else I have yet encountered.

I would I recommend this book?

Yes, without a doubt, but not without some stipulations. Don’t read until you are ready. In all honest, by the end I was reading quickly, possibly even rushing to the conclusion. Not because this isn’t a ‘good’ book. It is beyond ‘good’. ‘Good’ doesn’t come close. I am still searching for the right word to sum up my feelings for this book. No, I was rushing to the end because I couldn’t quite bear it anymore. It was so intense, so absorbing, it was changing my mood.

But one day, when the time is right for you, spend a little time with Jude. He deserves his story to be heard.

Hanya Yanagihara, author of A Little Life.

April Round Up: First Month of Bookbound!

So April is over and it’s time for me to present my monthly round up!

Well the big news, in case you didn’t already know is …I started a Book Blog!

And the even bigger news is that I am loving it. It might be harder than I ever thought but the connections, and in some remarkable cases, reconnections, with wonderful book loving people are so invigorating and rewarding.

It’s a slow burn but the followers here on WordPress, on Twitter and Instagram are slowly growing. People aren’t laughing me out of town and everyday I have to pinch myself to check that this is actually a new addition to my life. A very welcome addition at that. Every time I get a new post like, comment or follow I am more than slightly bewildered but enormously grateful. So thank you for all interactions, past, present and future.

There is plenty for me to learn about the whole process of blogging. For instance I am fast becoming aware that just because I have discovered NetGalley, doesn’t mean I have to request everything in sight. I am continually reminding myself; “There are still only so many reading hours in a day, that I still work full-time, and I still have 4 teenagers etc etc., one of whom is on the brink of GCSE’S!”

Rest assured I am pacing myself, but it’s hard… really hard. There are so many lovely, scrummy books out there begging to be read.

Another thing I thought I knew but now I TRULY KNOW is that good quality, well researched and accurate blog posts aren’t bashed out in a matter of minutes. I am in silent awe of skilled and eloquent bloggers who can post fantastic reviews several times a week. I am definitely not one of those bloggers. I am currently aiming for a couple of good quality posts a week. Anymore is a welcome bonus.

My excitement levels have reached fever pitch over the last few days with my requests being graciously accepted for some very promising ARC’s. And perhaps most exciting of all is the fact I have been asked to participate in two lovely blog tours. More of that later…

I am one giddy little kipper at the moment! Can you tell?

So, what did I read in April?

So April was a pretty solid reading month. I was actually surprised to discover that I has read 15 books. The fact we had a school holiday would definitely have been a contributing factor to this! And there were no DNF’s!

My complete list for April is :

  • Human Croquet – Kate Atkinson
  • The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter
  • The Complete Poems of Rupert Brooke
  • Letters from a Lost Generation : First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends – Ed. Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge
  • Boy of My Heart – Marie Connor Leighton
  • Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After – Vera Brittain
  • The Familiars – Stacey Halls
  • Graceland – Bethan Roberts
  • The Cut Out Girl – Bart van Es
  • The Cutting Season – Attica Locke
  • My Sister the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite
  • Bottled Goods – Sophie van Llewyn
  • Lost Children Archive – Valeria Luiselli
  • Picking Up the Pieces – Jo Worgan
  • Signs for Lost Children – Sarah Moss

I have the pleasure of reading a varied selection of books this month and it contains many highlights.

For those of you who have read some of my previous posts, it will come as no surprise that one of my favourite reads has been My Sister the Serial Killer. Also high up on the list is Bottled Goods, quirky and intense, and the brooding Signs for Lost Children. And no month that contains a previously unread Kate Atkinson can be a bad reading month. Why did Human Croquet sit on my TBR pile for so long? Makes me twitchy about what else is sitting there undiscovered. So many books…

What’s next? Reading plans for May…

As May is already upon us, then it’s reading plans are in fact already actions.

As of lunchtime today my first read of May is A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara. There will be a review to follow, but first I will need to gather my thoughts. Not a book to be taken lightly in any sense, a review will need careful consideration. A truly incredible but heartbreaking novel.

Next up is my first blog tour read, (did I mention I was excited?) This Stolen Life – Jeevan Charika. Perfect bank holiday reading!

I am also privileged to have some Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) waiting for my undivided attention. Winking at me from my Kindle is the haunting cover of The Immortal Prudence Blackwood – Stephanie Grey. And I am feeling nostalgic for the Fens of my childhood whilst eagerly awaiting Naseby Horses – Dominic Brownlow.

Belonging to two Book Clubs means there is reading already set out for me in real life. First up is The House at the End of Hope Street – Meena van Praag, followed by A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman.

In addition I am hoping to get to my two remaining unread Women’s Prize short listed books, An American Marriage – Tayari Jones and Ordinary People – Diana Evans. With a fair wind, and another bank holiday, I might even get to the long listed Remembered – Yvonne Battle-Felton. Wish me luck!


So that is a round up of my reading month. It is also a round up of my first blogging month. And I hope sincerely the first of many.

Thank you one and all for all the help, advice, support and encouragement. Onwards…