A little life by Hanya Yanagihara

I read A Little Life this March going into it with absolutely no knowledge about it apart from hearing that it is deeply moving/sad. I didn’t mind this fact and I was actually a bit intrigued because of this, I love books that can make me feel emotional or sad as well as long character driven stories (however, this is not a positive ‘review’ and reading this book was not a good experience). I enjoy watching youtube videos where people talk about adult fiction that they’ve read and enjoyed, and this came up so often that it stuck in my head and intrigued me.

A Little Life follows four college classmates- broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition- as they move to New York in search of fame and fortune. While their relationships, which are tinged by addiction, success and pride, deepen over the decades, the men are held together by their devotion to the brilliant, enigmatic Jude, a man scarred by an unspeakable childhood trauma. A hymn to brotherly bonds and a masterful depiction of love in the twenty-first century, Hanya Yanagihara’s stunning novel is about the families we are born into, and those that we make for ourselves‘.

I read this book over around a month and spent a long time digesting it. For the first half or so I enjoyed the pace of the book and getting to know the characters, who I found (and still find) to be very likeable. However, about half way through the book I realised that I was finding it to be exploitative (these are all my personal opinions, I’m not saying I am right). As I didn’t know the ending at this point and therefore the themes or resolution to come I withheld some judgement, however, since finishing it I can maintain that I held these views and some of the issues became more horrifying or worse. I also researched the author, as I think it would be unfair to say anything negative without knowing her own experiences and reasons for choosing to write this book- I found that she has not experienced any of these issues and has faced lots of controversy on the basis of this book. I wrote some of my thoughts while I was halfway through the book:

I’m finding this to be a bit exploitative and have a lot of problems so far with the way in which this book portrays so much horror and negativity in a way that leaves me questioning the ‘purpose’ behind it. I will say here I know nothing about this authors life and I retract a lot of what I’m thinking if they’ve experienced any of these issues, I’ll research it after finishing the book). Focusing purely on trauma, I’ve worked with a number of children who have experienced trauma, neglect and abuse. I can see elements of realistic portrayals of the ways in which some of these children test people and react to situations throughout their lives, however, I don’t understand the purpose of such a negative account of trauma. At this point, it appears as though rather than portraying the emotions and needs of some traumatised individuals, this has become a story that aims to shock and upset. I have read and enjoyed many stories that are realistic, dark or not necessarily happy- I love reading moving books and frequently gravitate towards books with themes of grief or mental illness- but I feel that these stories bring a ‘message’, educate people or are written in a truthful way to create unity or acceptance that people aren’t alone. I can’t speak for those who have experienced trauma (this is very important, I’d love to see perspectives and reviews of this book from individuals who’ve experienced these issues as they are much more valid), but I have witnessed the volume of what could be called exploitation within media, texts- programmes, books and films- that negatively portray those who experience trauma, mental illness or do not have a family. Stereotypes are used, these children and young people are labelled ‘damaged’ or ‘problematic’, ‘challenging’, and I have seen very little that discusses resilience, the strength of these individuals, the instances where traumatised children lead ‘typical’ lives- I also feel that a number of texts including this one write characters who are passively living through an almost fixed or predetermined situation, without the ability to make choices or decide the life that they would like to live. This book does not negatively portray a traumatised person, but does nothing to balance the horrors experienced or create elements of hope. Again, it’s important to note that I don’t think books have to be positive, but I do feel that we have to think about the response of some readers who frequently encounter negative accounts of their experiences- it is incredibly difficult to come through trauma, and negative stereotypes making up the vast majority of texts are not supportive of the strength and resilience required. I feel lucky that I have a number of well rounded books to comfort or make me feel emotional and that I can relate to, however, had I experienced trauma and felt a desire to find a character who related to this aspect of my life without alienating me, I think I would struggle to do so. I think it is necessary to think about whether a book has been written purely to exploit and ‘move’ the readers.

Again, I would like to emphasise that these are only my opinions and I would love to here the perspective from any one who has experienced any of these themes within this book. I’m not always the best at articulating my thoughts, so I hope what I mean has come across. I’ve been trying to think of some positive accounts of trauma and looked after children within texts- one of the children I worked with loved Tracy Beaker, and I think Jacqueline Wilson books handle different life experiences very well. I also think Harry Potter and Lilo and Stitch are positive accounts for children. It is harder to think of adult fiction, so please let me know if you’ve read any. Books like Girl, Women, Other have been brought to my mind as this book offers a very well rounded perspective of a number of lifestyles and experiences.

I would say A Little Life has a very good flow and it written in a way that reads quickly and easily (although some scenes are incredibly difficult to read), and I loved the characters. Without the issues I’ve outlined I feel I would have loved this book because of the powerful characters.

Favourite quote/meaningful quote:

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.’


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