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Erin Wilson
Features Writer
9:41 AM 1st September 2020

Book Review: A Little Life

I have just finished reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment in being able to write this sentence. It is a book of monumental contrasts: heart-breaking and tragic, yet loving and familiar.

For those who do not know, A Little Life follows a group of four men – JB, Jude, Willem and Malcolm - who become friends at university and form a bond that endures for the rest of their lives. Throughout their respective careers, trials and tribulations, they each face individual troubles, but come to realise that what binds them together is one of the four, Jude. The most aloof and mysterious of the four, Jude himself has endured great trauma to forge the life he now has as a successful lawyer.

Over the course of the book, those around Jude discover that his trauma is everlasting and something he has never really escaped from.

The positives of the book, of which there are many, do outweigh the negatives. My biggest qualm lies with the author. ‘A Little Life’ explores trauma, mental illness and the worst of humanity on a level I have never before seen in fiction. Whilst I admire the author for not shying away from lesser explored topics, I cannot understand why these topics were explored in such detail and why Yanagihara felt the need to subject her characters and thus the reader to such pain and trauma. In interviews and articles, she has described "wanting to go to the extreme" and "to turn everything up a little too high" but I find it hard to believe that her intent was anything other than to make it the most shocking, graphic and controversial work of fiction possible.

This brings me to my second point. Several times throughout the book, shock is used as a plot device, but in my opinion unnecessarily. There is not one chapter that does not deal with an otherwise difficult topic – suicide, drug abuse, child prostitution, paedophilia, self-harm, child-abuse, disability, physical pain and deformity, loss of a child or mental illness. But whilst these topics form the plot, there are times in the story where incidents are written in unnecessarily and solely for the purpose of causing maximum shock or impact to the reader.

Criticisms aside, there are definitely aspects of the book I adored. First and foremost, the friendships in the book are so loving and realistic. They demonstrate how hard it is to work at friendships and how they have the power for good and to save individuals. It catalogues the highs and the lows of 40 years of friendship.

Second of all, the writing. A Little Life is beautiful and accurately describes the friendship, mental illness and the positives and negatives of the protagonists. Never before have I had such an emotional reaction to a fictional story, and I believe this shows the strength of Yanagihara’s writing. I wanted a reaction from this book and in this regard the story did not disappoint.

This leads me to my final point about how trauma and mental illness are described in the book. A Little Life details this process of internal struggle and pain and how watching from the outside can be equally as traumatic. This description is on par with nothing else I have read before.

Overall, I am glad I read this book. I think it is a remarkable and beautiful story of mental illness and pain, especially from the male perspective. While some sections were certainly unsavoury, the overall story is a compelling lifting of the veil and reveals life behind closed doors.

The book will undoubtedly be contradictory but, if we can for one moment separate the writer from the story, then we have a heart-breaking, loving and well told tale, and a writer whose intentions in writing such a disturbing trauma I simply cannot fathom.