If you know anything about books, you would have heard of this one. This book is known for emotionally destroying its readers, and for this reason, I need to mention its extensive list of trigger warnings before I get any further into this review. *There are no spoilers in this review.*
TW: sexual abuse, child sexual abuse, verbal abuse, psychological manipulation, kidnapping, self-harm, violent accidents, prejudice against the disabled, drug use, addiction and grief (there may be some I haven’t mentioned, so do your research before picking up this book).
I know how weird it is to say what I am about to say after listing off all of the above, but A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is one of the best books I have ever read. Or possibly the best ever, I’m still trying to figure it out.
The book tells the story of four main characters, Jude St Francis, Willem Ragnarsson, Malcolm Irvine, and Jean Baptiste (JB) Marion. It follows them from the start of their friendship in college through to their later years, delving into some of the character’s backstories in the process. As well as the more distressing and negative subjects, the book also explores the meaning of friendship, love (platonic and not), family, relationships, and how difficult it can be to appreciate the world when all you have been given is the very worst of it.
A Little Life has some of the most beautiful scenes and character progressions in any book I have read, but it also has some of the very worst, and at (multiple) points I had to put the book down and take a moment to recover. Genuinely, sometimes it feels like a literal punch to the gut, where actual wind is knocked out of your lungs, and you need to pause to get it back again. But as far as I am concerned, this is exactly what makes the book so fucking fantastic.
The way Hanya Yanagihara writes is like nothing I have really experienced before. The story is so full, and due to the length of the book you truly get so much out of it, in terms of learning everything there is to know about the characters and the storyline. But don’t let the length scare you. Once I started reading, all I wanted was to know more. It is one of the easiest books I have read, my motivation to find out what happens was so intense since opening to the first page. But it is also one of the hardest.
There is a certain point in the book where everything is flipped on its head, and something very unexpected (and guess what? Extremely upsetting!) happens, and it changes everything. Yanagihara convinces you that everything is finally improving for a few of the characters, and it is the first time you feel joy while reading this book (I’m really selling it, aren’t I?). Just as you start to think nothing can get worse and finally breathe a sigh of relief, what’s that? OH, it gets worse sis. It really does.
This book is really shitty at times. Some of the themes it explores are very intense, but the way that Yanagihara approaches them is what gives the book its edge. It’s straight to the point, INCREDIBLY DESCRIPTIVE, connects to the characters, and puts you as the reader in a position that’s a little scary. You feel for the characters, but you also understand why they’re feeling the way that they are. Someone on Goodreads reviewed the book by saying “Did I finish A Little Life, or did A Little Life finish me?”, and I’ll leave it at that.
Like a lot of other people I have seen online, I actually took a break from reading after finishing this book. It wasn’t necessarily because I was emotionally damaged (haha), but also because I wanted to sit and ponder it without anything else interrupting that. This book is sooooo impactful; I think of the characters and the storyline still, even though it’s been four months since I read it, and I have read multiple books in between.
Hanya Yanagihara has created an incredible book that explores a number of difficult and wonderful themes within its 720 pages. It moved me, it shocked me, and it has stayed with me. Read it if you think you can handle it. It is truly something else. 5/5 stars from me.
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