Book of the Month: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Hanya Yanagihara’s deft depiction of heartbreak becomes a dark examination of the tyranny of memory, the limits of human endurance and the power of friendship
In this guest post, the award-winning singer-songwriter explains why Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel does exactly what great literature is supposed to do - it makes us think deeply and helps us understand life
I will happily admit, as a devoted and lifelong reader, that there are more than a few books that have made me cry. But Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life is different: it was one of the first books where I openly sobbed after reading. By the end of it I felt profoundly changed. I’m not exaggerating when I say this novel challenged everything I thought I knew about love and friendship. It’s one of those books that stays with you forever.
Of course, A Little Life is not an easy read. So after saying it’s one of my ‘favourite’ books, I always feel the need to add a caveat to that statement, because while exquisitely written it is also relentlessly sad, with 700 pages detailing harrowing abuse and trauma. Without giving too much away, the main character Jude experiences horrific repeated sexual abuse and violence as a child, and the core of the story hangs on how this trauma affects the rest of his life and the lives of those closest to him. There’s JB the artist, Malcolm the architect, Willem the actor and Jude the lawyer, each reaching the pinnacle of outward success in their chosen career.
Jude is an incredibly strong character, and many readers, myself included, say that he stays in their mind for years after reading the book. He wears a tough exterior to hide from the abuse he has suffered, but inside he’s deeply sensitive and troubled and traumatised. Yet somehow he still picks himself back up and tries until the very end to continue his life, albeit without ever letting anyone get too close.
As the story unfolds through a variety of horrific flashbacks, we are increasingly privy to what’s happening in Jude’s brain and why he is the way he is. The more we learn about what happened to him at school, the more we understand where his insecurities stem from and his behaviour starts to make sense. I wanted to jump into the pages and take Willem, JB and Malcolm to one side and help them to help Jude to open up.
Of course, in real life, we are often in the position of the other characters in the book, never really knowing what drives a person’s self-destructive behaviour. How many of us have wanted to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved? Or felt like we alone may be able to persuade someone to keep living? Between Willem and Jude there’s a kind of love that knows no bounds; that sad but unconditional love of wanting to help someone but not necessarily being able to really get to the core of the problem. As the reader, you hope desperately that Jude and his friends will be able to heal and transcend this awful past. But as Jude scars his own body through self-harm, and the scars in his mind do equal damage to his career and relationships, you fear that he won’t - and that the trauma of the past will eventually consume them all.
It was one of the first books where I openly sobbed after reading. By the end of it I felt profoundly changed— Dua Lipa
It is deeply unsettling and painful, as much for the inevitability of how the story plays out as for the specific tragedies the characters suffer, Jude above all. And that is exactly the point. Great literature helps us understand life, real life, and not every story is supposed to make us feel good. But if it makes you feel a connection, if it makes you think deeply, then I think that’s exactly what literature is supposed to do, and that’s why A Little Life so deserved its place on the Booker Prize shortlist.
Several years after first reading the story, I think about those four friends living together in their apartment on New York’s Lispenard Street often. Like many others who have read this book, my friends and I have formed a kind of self-help group to help endure the agony within it, and we check in with each other every time one of us walks past Lispenard Street in real life. It’s a place that symbolises the characters’ friendships and that makes me think of my own friendships which are also enduring, profound and absolutely fundamental to my life.
For many fans of the book, Lispenard Street has become a place of pilgrimage, perhaps because it represents a space for friends fresh out of college where they share their lives, develop their careers and find their freedoms. It’s something we can all relate to in some way, and many of us have our own personal Lispenard Street. Mine is in West London, where I moved when I was just 15 years old, a time that was really formative for me. I had left my family home in Kosovo to pursue a career in music and moved into a small flat. I was living alone and my friends became my family. Just like the four men in the story, I was figuring out my dreams and my goals and how I was going to get to where I wanted to be. That was the place that shaped me and set me off, even though I was still at school. I would meet my friends in nightclubs and we’d end the night with the most colourful cast of characters, who would come back to my flat. These weird and wonderful personalities, who tended to be older than me and had interesting jobs, really inspired me to just get out and do the work.
What I think makes the book so emotionally powerful - and intelligent - is Hanya Yanagihara’s decision to pay homage to the purity of friendship above all else in A Little Life. So many other novels explore the more common literary construct of Big Love - romance, sex, marriage. But at the centre of this book is an understanding that it is the love inherent in friendship that saves us again and again. Ultimately, it’s desperately sad - yearning to help someone doesn’t always result in reaching the core of their distress. There are some things which are always going to be out of reach. But there is hope in this selfless love, the beauty of loving someone with all their flaws, come what may.
At the centre of this book is an understanding that it is the love inherent in friendship that saves us again and again— Dua Lipa
I had the privilege of speaking to Hanya Yanagihara about writing A Little Life on my podcast, and I asked her why she decided to tell a story primarily about male friendship. I still think about her response often: ‘It wasn’t that men didn’t feel vulnerability, shame or sorrow, it was that we live in a culture that doesn’t allow them to express those things,’ she told me. ‘What happens to half of our population when they are not allowed to express the fundamental human qualities that make us vulnerable? Where does that shame and anger and sorrow go? And, of course, it either explodes outwards or it turns inwards.’ Both these things happen in A Little Life, with tragic consequences.
If you haven’t already read this novel, you will have gathered by now that A Little Life can be hard to get through - and no wonder, given the themes it tackles. But for anyone who has hesitated to pick up this book, or struggled to finish it first time around, I’d suggest to maybe look at it from a more empathetic angle. Try to imagine, if you can bear it, that something like this was happening to someone you know - that friend who can be difficult to reach or the one who holds you at a distance. By taking us to the extremes, Hanya Yanagihara opens our eyes to how people find themselves in this cycle and challenges us to love them more, not less. The easiest thing we can do is run away from things that make us uncomfortable, but sometimes the best thing to do is dive in and think about your own personal relationships and whether there’s someone out there who needs your help.
Yes, A Little Life is shot through with pain. But there is also beauty in the purity of friendship, love and compassion within its pages. You might love it. You might hate it. But, for sure, you will be profoundly changed.