I first heard of A Little Life a few months ago in the NY Times Book Review podcast, which I often listen to. The host of the podcast referred to it as “a difficult book” to read, a reference that stuck in my mind. I put a hold on the book at my local public library, and in the meantime, I often saw it at bookstores, displayed alongside other new books. While the cover stated it to be a National Book Award finalist, it wasn’t a literary sensation as far as I could tell, of the kind, for instance, that Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels were. Thus, I wasn’t in a tearing hurry to read it and wasn’t watching its progress on my library Hold queue with any kind of desperation. When I finally did get it, I put it along with the other library books I had borrowed, planning to get to it whenever I was done with the book I was currently reading. After I had finished that, I picked up “A Little Life” from my library books collection, primarily because it was a new book and I knew I couldn’t renew it once it became due. Also, the mention of it “being a difficult read” in the NY Times Book Review podcast came back to me and I was intrigued. At 720 pages of fairly dense text, the size of the book was quite daunting, but I had no compunctions about giving up on it if I didn’t find it interesting. I was doing that quite often with books these days – I could borrow so many of them from my public library (a privilege I didn’t have as a child growing up in India) that I borrowed anything that seemed interesting, but then returned it unread if it didn’t grip my attention after a few pages.
But once I started A Little Life, I couldn’t put it down. It is a book about four close friends, one of whom, Jude, has had a horrific childhood – and much of the book, although not all of it, revolves around him. The book traces their lives from their college days to late adulthood, and goes into an incredible amount of detail about everything they experience – their families, their friends, their professional lives, their social lives, their failures and successes, their struggles, their hopes and dreams – everything, in fact, that we as humans experience. The sheer amount of detail in this book is incredible, as is the ability to get inside the heads of the main protagonists – all of them – and feel what they are feeling. As I got deeper and deeper into the story and into the “skin” of the characters, I found myself dreading the “difficult parts” that had been alluded to in the podcast. I assumed that these had to be the details of the abusive childhood and trauma that Jude had been subjected to, which are revealed to us gradually in the book. However, at some point, I realized that what really made for difficult reading what was not what had happened to Jude when he was a child but what it led him to do throughout his adult life. The descriptions of these were so heart-breaking – and so gut-wrenchingly real – that I can unequivocally say that that I found A Little Life the most profoundly sad and moving book I have read so far.
All it says about the author of A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara, is that she lives in New York City. Apart from the book being set in this city, I could find no trace of any autobiographical element in this book, as it is with most books. I found it mind-boggling that someone who is not even male can get into the skin of four male friends, and of most of the other main characters in the book that are also male, so completely, so authentically. The book also has extremely detailed descriptions of the four completely different professions of the four friends – lawyer, architect, actor, and artist – and I am in awe that one person can write about all of these professionals in so much depth and with so much authenticity. We know that good writers do a lot of research for their books to make sure that all the details are accurate, but I just cannot comprehend how any one person can write about so many things and so many people and capture them so completely and accurately – in all their thoughts, actions, eccentricities, weaknesses, failings, and emotions.
I would definitely not call A Little Life a “fun” or “entertaining” read, but rather, a gripping, searing saga that seems so real that it shakes you to the depths of your soul.
A Little Life
Author: Hanya Yanagihara
Publication Date: March 2015
Reviewer: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.