A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Book 4 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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And it wasn’t until a few weeks after that that I was able to open the letter he had left us on his table. I hadn’t been able to bear it earlier; I wasn’t sure I would be able to bear it now. But I did. It was eight pages long, and typed, and it was a confession: of Brother Luke, and Dr. Traylor, and what had happened to him. It took us several days to read, because although it was brief, it was also endless, and we had to keep putting the pages down and walking away from them, and then bracing each other–Ready?–and sitting down and reading some more. (p. 717)

If you asked me where I’ve been the last twelve days, I would tell you that I have been wrapping my mind around a new school year. Preparing for the twenty-eight children who will walk into my classroom next week. And I have been reading A Little Life in bits and pieces, as much as I can bear until I must set it down again, for it is the most tragic book I have ever read.

I thought that last year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize, The Narrow Road to The Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, was tragic. It is a deeply moving book about atrocities committed to men during war. But, A Little Life is even more moving, about the atrocities committed to an abandoned boy during childhood.

With each page that I read, I wondered how I could continue, and indeed I could not had Hanya Yanagihara not offset the story with hope offered by those few who knew how to love unconditionally. Their love to Jude was deep, and loyal, and faithful. But how can it overcome the damage which the evil from his childhood had done to him?

It is late tonight, for me. I am exhausted from the emotions which this novel wrung from where they had long been tucked away, for it uncovered many fears I unwillingly hold tight.

A Little Life is a book I have long avoided. The cover alone made me turn from picking it up when reviews starting popping up upon its publication. I did not know how I could bear the story contained within such a painful image. I still don’t know how to bear it. But, turning aside does not allow us to face that which frightens us. In fact, some of the very best literature is that which causes us to confront fear and sorrow within our lives, while remembering the good that has been offered.

That is what Hanya Yanagihara has done brilliantly. That is what makes me ultimately glad that I have read this novel through the tears it made me weep.

(Find thoughts from other (Wo)Man Booker shadow members here: Shelf Love, Of Books and Bicycles.

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35 thoughts on “A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Book 4 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)”

  1. Apparently it was as difficulty for her to write as it is to read; do check out the author’s interview on THE MILLIONS, if you have a chance (sounds like you’re busy!). Her previous novel, THE PEOPLE IN THE TREES, fascinating also. I’ve been meaning to let you know how much I appreciate your reviews – you think and write so well. Your students are lucky to have you. Thank you!

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    1. Hilary, how very kind your words are, thank you for the affirmation of my little blog. I haven’t read The People in The Trees, although I do remember it sitting on shelves in bookstores round my town. If it’s anything like the tragedy portrayed in A Little Life, I’m going to have to strengthen up a bit first before I read it. I couldn’t find a place to “visit” you, perhaps you don’t have a blog? If you do, I’d love to come over.

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    1. I felt quite incapable of reviewing this book. First, because Yanagihara’s writing is so beautiful and complex…how can I portray the meaning accurately? But also because if I tell too much, I spoil Jude’s telling of it as the narrator. And then there would be no point to read it slowly for oneself.

      I wish you every blessing on your new year at school. You still have some time off, do you not? I wish the days of freedom were unceasing sometimes…

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  2. Your reaction seems to be similar to others I’ve read. I’m on the fence as to whether to pick this one up. Still deciding. It sounds out of my usual area of reading, but sometimes that is a very good thing. Oh and good luck with the start of school!

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    1. If you do pick it up, you can always put it down again, which is something I must admit to being tempted to do. But, every time I put it down, I’d rest awhile, and then I felt I had to get back to Jude’s story. It was so compelling, completely drawing me in.

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    1. I’m not sure I can say II “enjoyed” it. Found it almost unbearably beautiful? Yes. Found it utterly compelling? For sure. Wondered at the skill of her writing, able to make the characters live far beyond the page on which they normally reside? Indeed. But, not enjoyed it like I would a nice cup of tea and a cozy mystery.

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  3. I don’t think I could bear to read this novel right now (and I’m not convinced I’m the ‘right’ reader for it anyway), so it’s a pass for me. How does it compare with the other three you’ve read so far? It sounds as though you think it’s got a good chance of making the shortlist.

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    1. Oh Jacqui, it’s what we’ve discussed so many times before: the most poignant books are so often the ones that are the most grievous. They are worth reading, but they are harrowing at the same time. Still, I would regret never having read this book. And surely, if A Narrow Road to The Deep North could win the Booker, this one stands a solid chance. I suspect, deep down, that it will.

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  4. As you know, this book didn’t work for me, but I give her credit for writing an absorbing story, especially at that length. My opinion didn’t start to sour until a couple hundred pages in, and even then, I never gave much thought to giving up.

    Her first book, on the other hand, is stunning. It’s sort of a Lolita and Pale Fire mash-up and is still one of my favorites from recent years. I wish it had gotten the attention this is getting, but maybe this book’s success will get people to read it. now.

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    1. I can completely sympathize with why this book didn’t work for you. Every point you made about it’s length, unbelievable sorrow which only kept coming, inability for any solution to come about, is valid. And if I didn’t know a man who suffered almost as much as Jude, I would agree. But, I saw that nothing could comfort him. Nothing could ease his pain, no matter how much help was sought. And for that, I can accept Jude’s story as more real than not.

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  5. A quote from Mrs. miniver says,” To shrink from direct pain was bad enough, to shrink form vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice. And whereas to conceal direct pain was a virtue-to conceal vicarious pain was a sin.” it still doesn’t make things easier to see or read.

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    1. Can I tel you how much it means to have your insight and knowledge left here on my blog? What a wonderful, and perfectly apt, quote to add.You mean so much to me.

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  6. Yes, this is a difficult book to write about, and yet there is so much to say. I recently talked about the book with a friend who hadn’t read it yet, but had read a bunch of articles on it and was intrigued. We talked about it for an hour and had a great conversation! And I couldn’t help but talk about the characters as though they are real people. I completely believe in them.

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    1. They were (are still) quite real to me, too. I can’t quite believe how Yanagihara made them breathe as well as she did, yet they will live in my mind for a long time.

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  7. M, I’ve heard so many wonderful things about this book and also how devastating a read it is. I’ve had it on my shelf for some time now, because I’m not sure I’m in the right frame of mind to appreciate it at the moment. However, from reading your post, I know that I will most definitely find myself in awe of the book and sobbing, too. I love your post – it makes me think about how powerful the written word can truly be. When books can touch you so deeply, they make for the ultimate reading experience. I look forward to A Little Life.

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    1. I love how you said, “when books can touch you so deeply, they make for the ultimate reading experience.” Yes! That power is what makes a book stand out for me, is probably the biggest reason why I read. It’s so strange with A Little Life, that I can’t say I enjoyed the book. It is too sad, too tragic, too real for that. But, I’m so glad that I read it. It was worth every tear.

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  8. All of us who have read this seem to have had the same reaction. It is my #1 pick so far this year — yes, beautifully tragic indeed.

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  9. I agree completely – it is an emotionally exhausting read. But I think reading books like this is important. They strengthen our empathy and hopefully help us to better listen to people’s stories in real life.

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    1. Yes, reading books like is indeed important. Painful, but insightful, and as you said able to strengthen our empathy. The issue of depression has touched my family, and even though I don’t personally suffer from it, the consequences of the disease are devastating. How well Yanagihara portrayed its power.

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  10. I am not a fan of that cover either but someone mentioned that the cover makes sense once you read the book so I have been curious about this book since. Glad that you liked it. Hope back to school goes great!

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    1. Athira, thanks for your happy Back-to-School wishes. It was strange beginning with a heavy heart, and yet it was a worthy distraction to focus on the dear children after reading this heavy novel. As I’ve said before, this is certainly a book worth reading, although not an easy one.

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  11. This book seems certainly to have had a majoy impact and for that alone it will be remembered and is clearly encountering great success, it will be interesting to see what the judges make of it, I think I’m going to make it my my summer chunkster for 2016. 🙂

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  12. That cover is actually a photograph by Peter Hujar called ‘Orgasmic Man’, which is… ironic, to say the least.

    I wasn’t a fan of the book at all. I could write an essay on all the problems I had with it, but I suppose the biggest one was that it read like torture porn. Most of the reviews I read about it, calling it harrowing and distressing and saying they had to put it down so often, make me believe that the shock value is mostly what makes this book so popular. When it comes to writing style, themes, motives, plot, character development etc. I find it to be fairly mediocre—not bad, by any means, but not terribly exciting and (in my opinion) deserving of the hype it gets either. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this won the Man Booker, though.

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    1. Yes, I know from whence the photograph came and what it was titled. To me, it seems a grossly inappropriate photograph and title for the content of this tragic novel, although it is powerful in its jarring effect. I didn’t discuss it in my post because of the…irony might be a better way of saying unfitting.

      I can easily see why you (and others) might not be a fan of the novel. I, too, found the writing style often awkward. Forced in places. And yet, the characters breathed for me, and the tragic quality of the plot resonated deeply with events in my own life. What makes a book great? Surely it’s a combination of beautiful writing, interesting plot, lasting themes, and while A Little Life doesn’t score highly in all of those, I think it may win for the sheer emotion it is able to elicit in many of its readers.

      By the way, thank you for visiting and leaving an insightful and honest opinion. I couldn’t find your name linked to a blog or I would surei visit.

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      1. As someone who has a hard time turning off her critical brain, I definitely struggle with critical analysis vs. emotional response when reading books. It’s the reason why I still have conflicting feelings about, for example, The Goldfinch, which was similar to A Little Life in its scope and themes but left a lot of reviewers feeling underwhelmed and disappointed. And it did have a lot (a lot!) of faults, but it pulled at my heartstrings and therefor made me suspend my disbelief in a way that A Little Life didn’t, which is why I keep defending it. So I do understand why many people love A Little Life—had I been a different person (or reader) with different life experiences, I might have too.

        I lack the patience and dedication to have a blog, but I am nothing if not grateful for the ones, like yourself, who have one and manage to keep it up for so long. You and your fellow bloggers are invaluable to me when it comes to discovering lesser known (mostly translated) literature, so thank you!

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