Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So this is a difficult review to put together. I feel like wanting people to read this novel and at the same time will be very cautious recommending it to people. This is a book that will make many top 10 lists and will likely contend for many awards, but it will also turn people off because at the end of the day it is a bleak tale that will leave readers emotionally drained.

As a warning, a major theme of this book is sexual abuse and it is a challenge for a reader to get through the torment that a history of sexual violation has done to the main protagonist. The pain Jude feels throughout his life and what it does to him, even while overcoming the pain to accomplish pretty eventful things, is hard to ingest. 

Despite the difficult subject matter, Yanagihara has really written in beautiful prose. It is a book I found difficult to put down at times and the depth and compassion she writes about the characters is really enthralling. You feel the pain and insecurities and struggles that they go through, despite being surrounded by each other's love. But you are also taken in by the inner beauty they all possess, that they try to show each other, even though they usually fail to properly do so. There is a sense of constant drowning but the light that also shines on this group of friends is so bright that it helps you get through the darker moments of this book.

This isn't a perfect novel though. There are believability issue in the plot and there are times the story loses steam, and unfortunately I found this most the case when Jude tells the horrible story that has made him who he is. That said, it emotional scope of the novel comes in waves and the concluding quarter is an devastating rush of emotion for the reader, and leaves us admiring the genius of this literary accomplishment but also with a sense of hush about talking about what we have just experienced. 

Yanagihara's style is clearly influenced by Donna Tart and in the first 100 pages you can draw parallel's to The Secret History. But while Tart aims to take readers on a journey that is joyous to read, Yanagihara has delved into much darker subject matters that leaves the reader feeling much more down about what they have just taken in.

One criticism I have heard in regards to this book is that the pain described is too outrageous and that the level of success Jude manages to have professionally is unbelievable. While I agree that some elements of unbelievability are present in A Little Life,  Yanagihara has responded, stating the following:

"Everything in this book is a little exaggerated: the horror, of course, but also the love. I wanted it to reach a level of truth by playing with the conventions of a fairy tale, and then veering those conventions off path. I wanted the experience of reading it to feel immersive by being slightly otherworldly, to not give the reader many contextual tethers to steady them."

So while some have identified this as a flaw, I don't necessarily see it as such and in many ways helps accomplish what Yanagihara intends. 

This is one of these books that will stick with me, whose characters I will think about for many years to come. It will stir at the pit of my belly for many months I can tell and hopefully when I think back I will mostly think about Jude and Willem looking deeply at each other and being happy, even if the happiness is fleeting.

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