Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara is either a one star read or a five star and I honestly have no idea which. I don’t think that I have ever had such a love/hate relationship with a book before. I started off hating it, fell deeply in love with it about 400 pages in and then returned to hating it for the last hundred pages (which was a highly confusing experience).

I will just put this out there quickly: this review is going to be full of spoilers from this point on. If you haven’t read the book and aren’t a fan of spoilers, maybe stop reading now.

So, the first 300 pages of A Little Life… they’re a disaster. I repeatedly found myself wondering how on earth it got published in that form. Where was the editor??? For a start, the first chapter makes the book seem as if it is going to be about four friends (Jude, Malcolm, Willem and JB) when it is actually about Jude and a little bit about Willem. The problem here is that Yanigahara introduces JB and Malcolm and then expects you to believe that they are not going to change at all over the course of about thirty years, whilst she focuses on Jude and Willem. Occasionally JB or Malcolm would crop up in the story, as if the author was reminding you “hey, they’re important!” But, to be honest, that just made the book feel as if it wasn’t too sure what it wanted to be.

Actually, I think therein lies my main problem with A Little Life. It reads like a first draft. It is clumsy and poorly edited. It is pitched as a story about four friends when it is actually only about two of them. Hell, Harold was a more important character than JB or Malcolm! Yanigahara includes incredibly long paragraphs on mathematics and law that are really unnecessary and make the book seem very over-indulgent. Then, she utilizes this incredibly annoying technique of dropping the reader in on a scene at the beginning of a chapter and then flashing back to catch you up on the last few years since the last chapter ended. She told me what happened, instead of showing me. Admittedly, this last problem was sort of resolved about 400 pages in.

Beyond the unnecessary continuous assertion that the book was, in fact, about JB and Malcom too, there were a few other highly unnecessary sections. The Caleb section, for example. That was so beyond unnecessary. Jude’s backstory made it very clear why he would be suffering from mental health issues and struggling with cutting. Inserting yet another abusive man into his adulthood was gratuitous. The book has been described as “torture porn” but, I think, people are mostly referring to Jude’s backstory, which I didn’t have an issue with as it still served the story. The Caleb section, however, I did not feel served the story at all. And then there was the ending… but I will get to that just now.

In spite of the awful start, from about 350/400 pages in, the book is brilliant. Instead of simply being repeatedly told that Jude has been abused in some way, his backstory begins to be explored and we begin to truly understand the ways in which he has been affected by the trauma. And Jude’s emotional development as he enters into a relationship with Willem was beautiful to read. Their relationship has to be the most beautiful literary relationship that I have ever read and I became so invested in it. I loved reading about them together and seeing the compromises that they both had to make in order to be together. I think, in the few hundred pages chronicling their relationship and exploring Jude’s past, Yanigahara managed to write something phenomenal about life and love.

And then she ruined it.

Killing Willem was ridiculously gratuitous. It served no purpose except to indicate that Jude was perhaps the most gruesomely unfortunate person on the planet. At that point, the book completely lost me. It was over the top. Even more ludicrous was killing Malcom. Not only had he become superfluous to the story quite a while ago but now he was being killed alongside Willem. Why? What was the point? Exploring Jude’s challenges in his relationship with Willem was heartbreaking enough and far more effective and compelling. Killing Willem (and Malcolm) was too overt, too extreme and, actually, did the characters a disservice.

Basically, this book needed some serious editing. It contains an incredibly moving story about brilliant characters but it is buried. As I said, it was like reading a first draft where the author has just word vomited all their ideas onto paper but haven’t had the chance to sift through their work for the good stuff yet. Which means that I hated a lot of it but also really loved a lot of it. It cannot be a one star read because the mid-section was definitely five star stuff. But it can’t be a five star read because the first 300 and last 100 pages were definitely one star material. In short, I hated it. But I loved it.

Well, that’s not confusing at all.

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