3 min read

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Childhood trauma shapes a person.
Image of a book splayed open on a rock. The background is a blurry image of an autumn forest
Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

I recently read A Little Life. At 730 odd pages, the book took me through ups and downs I never thought I'd ever read about.

This book is full of ordeals and I'd summarise it by saying two words:
Spectacularly distressing.

The story is one of relentless grief punctuated by moments of relief. It needs multiple trigger warnings — rape, sexual abuse, domestic violence, self-harm, suicide, grief, loneliness, addiction, bullying, control, able-bodied gaze turning into violence and self-sabotage, feelings of unworthiness, ugh... I could go on and yet there'd be some trigger warnings I'd have missed.

This is about four friends (Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem) who know each other from college. The story traces their lives and career growth over a span of 40 years, and is focused more on Jude but swings back and forth to show everyone else's experiences through their own voices. In some cases, it also shows us their perspective of Jude or how they deal with him. In a way, the readers know more about the characters' lives than the friends (or the other characters) know about each other.  

Hanya Yanagihara's vocabulary is expansive and her language is so clear and precise that it makes you wonder how long it would've taken for her to put together these sentences that make perfect sense, are seemingly simple and yet atrociously difficult to articulate. She captures the in-between moments so well, as she does the innate fear of judgment almost everyone goes through, even in real life. She has also explored and detailed the disability aspect so well that it astounded me. Everything in this book was heightened — be it the sorrow, the wealth, the grand career successes, the travel, the size of their homes, or the romantic gestures. She asks the question 'where does one truly belong' without explicitly asking it but through the questions and deliberations the characters go through.

When I finished reading the book, I felt angry, but also moved because it told me that everyone's fighting a battle I can't possibly decipher. I'm not allowed to be judgmental. I don't have the right to decode or disregard another person's trauma. The incidents are gobsmackingly horrific — but it could be a normal occurrence in someone's life. This book will teach you the importance of resilience, empathy, and simply the fact that some people are tough not because they want to be but because circumstances make them draw up a wall so they can avoid or deflect the pain. Jude's trauma makes him judge himself too harshly, and that prevents him from opening up till the very end.  

I had a huge takeaway: Childhood trauma shapes a person's behaviour. How they process their experiences will determine if they bend or break. If either happens, they all learn to deal with it. Through A Little Life I understood that however you live your life, you're always going to be alone, especially as you grow older.  

My problem: The story was well-rounded and multi-dimensional, but the persistent optimist in me looked forward to at least one happy situation and something to cheer for —something that could make Jude inexplicably, humanly happy. There can't be so much sadness in a person's life. That was simply unacceptable. But that was perhaps the success of this book. Despite the fact that this nagged me, I was blown away by the detail in every shocking scene and setting.

End note for readers: Read it only if you’re in the frame of mind to read it. If you're in a cold country where it's grey for half the year —where your mood swings back and forth like a pendulum, don't read it. Pick it up again during the summer so you can get through with it because the sun will be there to help you process it.

I think that A Little Life is not just a book. It's a living, breathing person full of life.

Overall rating: 5/5

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Dear supporter! 👋 Thanks for stopping by. I’m Swathi, a writer, reader and a language nerd. I write about all things life, tech, reading and writing. As someone...