Book reviews, General, The Reading Life

REVIEW: Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life”

I started this book in December 2016 because I needed something really massive and of literary brilliance to take my mind off my Heart of Glass crowdfunding campaign and I wanted something that will last or outlast the campaign. A Little Life is hardly little. It weighs 1 kg or 2.2 pounds and measures 50mm or 2 inches thick  –


And that is excluding the hardcover. You can’t read this with one hand holding a glass of wine. You need both hands to read this and believe me, it is not only physically, it is mentally demanding of all your focus and energies. I asked myself if I really want to write a review or just forget having read A Little Life? I decided that I really want to write a short review as the subject matter is very gruesome and disturbing. It is a very intense experience and the memory of this book is still razor sharp although I finished it a week ago.

At first I thought it was a story of four American friends, graduates, arriving in New York city to seek fame and fortune, a coming of age bildungsroman. Nothing prepared me for what was to come.

“New York was populated by the ambitious,” JB observes. “It was often the only thing that everyone here had in common…. Ambition and atheism.”

Until a third through, I am thinking, this is great, these guys are all brilliant, doing so well in their chosen professions, buying property, going to dinner, parties and so on. In fact I got quite hungry with the descriptions of the places to which they went for dinner. Why am I reading this book? What can possibly happen next?

So the fabulous four are as follows:

Willem Ragnarsson, of Swedish origin is the handsome son of a Wyoming ranch hand, a waiter aspiring to be an actor;

Malcolm Irvine, who is from a Jewish wealthy Upper East Side family, who becomes an associate in a European starchitectecture outfit;

Jean-Baptiste (JB) Marion, the son of Haitian immigrants, who works as a receptionist at a downtown art magazine who aspires to be a successful artist; and

Jude St. Francis, a lawyer and mathematician, who is mysterious even to his friends, was a foundling, dumped in a bag and raised by monks.

So far so good. The story takes a turn when in fact I thought the focus would be on JB where it all starts, but in fact the limelight has been shifted to Jude St Francis. This book is really about the unconsoled, Jude, who appears has been not only severely sexually and physically abused as a child and teenager that he is cutting himself. The graphic description is quite sickening and I often have to brace myself and look forward to a night of nightmares as they are so disturbing.

Here is the first time we see the cutting:

“There’s been an accident, Willem; I’m sorry.”

Jude has wrapped his arm in a towel as he is bleeding profusely. He won’t say what caused the wound. Willem takes him to a mutual friend named Andy, who is a doctor. Having sewn up Jude’s wound, Andy says to Willem, “You know he cuts himself, don’t you?” The cutting scenes are repetitive. Soon we get the idea that every so often, Jude mutilates his own flesh with a razor blade. He has no skin left in fact, because he has done it so often. It is all scar tissue. After the wounds heal they are cut again and the scars themselves are scarred to the point of being fissured like a landscape. As we discover more about Jude’s past, the graphic horror intensifies.

SPOILER: OK you can stop reading now if you don’t want any graphic details and if you don’t want to know the ending. 

The cutting is caused by and self-soothing to blot out the horrific abuse Jude underwent. Yanagihara provides graphic description in a series of flashbacks, each more powerful than the previous, and worser than you can imagine. Jude was taught to cut himself by Brother Luke, the monk who abducted him from the monastery.At first, you would think that Brother Luke was Jude’s saviour, taking him away because Jude was already regularly physically bashed to oblivion and sexually assaulted until he passed out. Jude believed Brother Luke that they will go and live together as father and son in a house in the woods. But they in fact lived for years in motels, Brother Luke pimping Jude out to several hundreds or thousands of sick clients who are after young boys to rape. One bad thing led to another, eventually when the cops bust into the motel room, Brother Luke hung himself and so got away scot free while Jude got put into care in which one counsellor or social worker after another also sexually abused him repeatedly. He ran away and got supposedly rescued by another grim character from the side of the road where he had collapsed. Dr Traylor, who despite being a doctor giving him antibiotic medication for his STDs and nursed him back to health, carried on the sexual abuse where it was left off by others. When he tried to escape, Dr Traylor actually ran him over and made Jude a cripple. Years later, as a man in his fifties, he had to suffer amputation of both feet as a result of his injuries and bone infection. As a thiry-something adult working as a top lawyer, the first relationship he had was with someone called Caleb, a fashion exec who also beat the sh1t out of him. He tried to kill himself but failed. Finally he met the love of his life, Willem, his first friend from Uni, his confidante but he cannot really have any sexual relationship with anyone because he really hated sex and his past. When finally he trusted Willem, now a successful actor both Hollywood and stage, Willem had a car crash and died. After two years getting more and more depressed, Jude killed himself, this time successfully. The novel spanned something like thirty or forty years. Andy (his friend who stitched him each time) was already retired by the end of the book. Only JB survived. The others including peripheral characters from their tightknit Uni days, had also died of terminal illness and/or cancer. Even Caleb died of cancer.

This story is like a Dostoyesvkyian Stephen King. It is saved by the literariness if there is such a word. Without it, this book would simply be horror and terror. There is no redemption, no happy ending, no denouement. You really end up wondering how you managed to read this story to the end, could it be the reader would like to believe that such a damaged character would eventually be saved, would find happiness and indeed recover from the atrocities inflicted upon him? You ask yourself how can such a excruciatingly sad story be so rich and so beguiling, astonishing in its brilliance, never once wallowing in the dreariness and the muck that is indeed A Little Life?

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