Cover: Pan Macmillan

Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’ is a misunderstood masterpiece

TW: mentions of self-harm, sexual abuse, child abuse, violence.

“A Little Life is trauma porn”. “You’ll only enjoy this if you’re depressed”. “If someone’s favourite book is A Little Life, I see that as a huge red flag”. These have all been said to me to describe Hanya Yanagihara’s infamous 2015 novel, A Little Life. While these statements have an echo of truth to them, to reduce A Little Life to this is simplistic, offensive even. What many fail to see is what A Little Life truly is – a misinterpreted masterpiece.

Set in New York over the span of forty years, A Little Life follows a group of friends – Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude – who move to a run-down apartment in Chinatown, New York to pursue different careers. Malcolm is a frustrated architect – he hails from a wealthy family who are unsupportive of his career. Willem, on the other hand, is a handsome and charismatic aspiring actor. JB is a witty but short-tempered painter entering the Brooklyn art scene. Finally, there is Jude – the painfully enigmatic force that glues them all together. Having been good friends in college, the novel follows the characters as they navigate the ups and downs of independent life – blissfully unaware of what is to come.

There are few books this length that leave you wanting more

The turning point of the novel occurs around page 70. Jude reveals he struggles with severe self-harm, and hints at having been sexually abused during his childhood. From that moment on, each terrible piece of the puzzle begins to fall into place. The result is a maelstrom of feelings, emotions, and horrific revelations.

While the novel’s premise may sound simplistic, generic even, where the novel shines is in its brilliant cast of characters, each of which feels more akin to a real person than to a fictional character. And because A Little Life stands at a mammoth 700 pages, it becomes the perfect playground for Yanagihara to fully explore each character. There are few books this length that leave you wanting more.

But ultimately, whether you love it or you hate it, A Little Life will not leave you feeling indifferent

A Little Life is dark, and its seemingly never-ending list of trigger warnings serves testament to this. Perhaps, this is what makes it so captivating. Yanagihara explores topics few authors dare venture into, including graphic self-harm, sexual abuse, and violence – all of which are described in grotesque detail. Paired with her outstanding writing, A Little Life will mercilessly gnaw you, swallow you, and spit you out a different person. It is impactful to the point where there is a trend where you film yourself reading A Little Life. In a perverse and twisted way, there is a sense of comfort as you see someone else descend into the same distress as you when you first read the novel.

A Little Life is not for everyone – if anything, it is a book I am hesitant to recommend because of its disturbing and graphic material. Whether you choose to read it comes down to whether you feel comfortable going down the path you know you will venture down. But ultimately, whether you love it or you hate it, A Little Life will not leave you feeling indifferent.



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