Reading guide: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, Hanya Yanagihara’s novel is a powerful exploration of human endurance. Discover more in our comprehensive guide
In the midst of a personal loss, writer and book lover Sarah Gwonyoma picked up A Little Life. In this personal essay, she reveals how the novel allowed her to process her pain, and find pockets of joy amongst the sorrow
‘Oh my God, have you read A Little Life?’
‘Yessss, it’s literally one of the best books I have ever read. You?’
‘Yeah, I read it and I loathed it. Why would anyone in their right mind put themselves through 800 pages of relentless misery porn?’
Hanya Yanagihara’s book is one of the most divisive books I’ve ever come across - I’ve even heard of book clubs banning it. It’s also, hands down, one of my favourite books of all time.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2015, it has become a global phenomenon, selling over a million copies worldwide. It’s even become a micro-industry. There are t-shirts, tote bags and even guided tours around Lispenard Street, New York, where part of the book is set. You’d be hard pressed not to have seen it on Instagram or TikTok – it feels like it’s everywhere online, and now the stage adaptation will play for 12 weeks at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London from 25 March, bringing it to an even wider audience.
In a nutshell, A Little Life is about four young men; Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB, graduates of the same prestigious New England university, who live together in New York. The book follows their lives and relationships, which change under the influence of success, wealth, addiction and tragedy.
The enigmatic Jude is at the centre of this unforgettable story; a genius lawyer with multiple debilitating health issues and a mind-blowingly traumatic past. As we are pulled further into Jude’s vortex of pain, we begin to learn the reasons behind his misery. Whilst being raised in a monastery, Jude was sexually abused at a very young age. The abuse continued at the hands of counsellors later in his life. There are happy years for Jude, too; his relationship with Willem gives both Jude and the reader a sense of calm and hope. However, it’s not exactly a huge spoiler to say that the book ends on a devastatingly downbeat note.
When it was first published, I remember reading rave reviews of the book and thinking, ‘Hmmm, this sounds bleak, but I’ll give it a go’. It took months for my copy to arrive on the tiny Island of Samoa, where I was living at the time, so imagine my excitement when I finally had it in my hands.
I would hide the book under my bed, as if by doing this it would mean the bad thing that I didn’t want to happen, wouldn’t happen— Sarah Gwonyoma
I found the beginning to be a bit of a slow burn; I couldn’t quite get into it. I recall putting it aside thinking I’d come back to this another time. Months later, whilst recovering at home from a very early miscarriage, I decided to give it another try – and was hooked.
I would stay up late into the night, totally engrossed in Jude’s world. I would find myself saying out loud, ‘Oh God, no, no, noooooo,’ and would have to put the book down.
My husband would eye-roll me and ask, ‘How can you even read something so traumatic after miscarrying?! How is that helping you heal in any way? Stop reading it.’
But I couldn’t stop. I was fully committed to Jude. I wanted to see if he could be saved. I wanted him to be saved. I wanted to save him.
In hindsight I wonder whether, subconsciously, it wasn’t Jude I wanted to save but a dear friend of mine I lost many years ago; the friend ‘who got away’. The friend with a bright future, who loved whoever had the pleasure to ever be in their orbit. Who, like Jude, seemed to have it all, yet carried layers and layers of unresolved trauma. I felt I was always on standby for ‘that call’; the call we all dread. The call that crushingly came one afternoon. With it came the chaos of losing someone - something I have experienced more times in this lifetime than most.
There were moments in the book where I found myself having to take ‘a break’. I had to force myself to stop reading, afraid of what might come next. When Jude brought the abusive Caleb home, I remember shutting the book and literally hiding it under my bed, as if by doing this it would mean the bad thing that I didn’t want to happen, wouldn’t happen.
One particular scene, a harrowing accident (if you’ve read the book, you’ll know the moment I mean), almost ended me. I remember throwing the book across the room and screaming, scaring our poor dog out of the room. I lay in bed for hours, inconsolable.
I was fully committed to Jude. I wanted to see if he could be saved. I wanted him to be saved. I wanted to save him— Sarah Gwonyoma
Why did I decide to read a book that covers grief and pain so deeply, having just suffered a personal loss myself? I guess there is something to be said for reading about other people’s pain when you’re drowning in your own. It makes you feel less alone.
In his book, A Heart That Works, the actor Rob Delaney talks about how reading Joan Didion’s book, A Year of Magical Thinking, made him feel less alone after his losing his two-year-old son to brain cancer. ‘I’ve been sober for twenty years but the sensation that book gave me was analogous to three beers and a bong hit,’ he wrote.
Delaney also talks about going to see Ari Aster’s movie Hereditary, a film seeped in ritualistic murder and misery, with other grieving parents, not long after his son died, as a way to process his pain. He talks about how they laughed out loud throughout the movie, garnering shocked and disgusted looks from others in the cinema.
I certainly didn’t find myself laughing at Jude’s misery, but I did find pockets of joy hope and love in many parts of his story.
The moments in A Little Life where I felt my heart was literally going to self-combust with love were when Harold adopted Jude; all of Willem and Jude’s love story (‘the happy years’); the unwavering loyalty and love of Jude’s friends and family; when Andy’s wife says she wouldn’t have married Andy had it not been for his relationship with Jude; Jude’s letter to Julia and Harold; Jude making the food everyone loves and Jude helping Willem learn the Christmas Song. While love may not have been enough to save Jude, at least he got a chance to be in love and feel loved.
In many ways, Harold, Julie and Willem were the family Jude never had. Friends who become family can be a lifeline. Living so far away from my own family when living in Fiji, I leant on friends massively for support after my husband died suddenly of a heart attack, five years ago. I was adjusting to life as a single mother, muddling through my own grief and my son’s. The bonds I have built with my ‘Fiji family’ are for life and cannot be understated.
Regardless of where you sit with this book, you’d be hard pressed not to feel deeply affected by it, whether you loved or loathed it. Big, difficult life themes are covered in A Little Life; pain, grief, loss, friendship and love, issues that bind us as humans and are interwoven into our lives whether we’re seeking it or not. It’s sad. It’s messy. But it’s also life.
A Little Life has affected me in ways no other book has ever done before. Not everyone will love it, of course, and many will hate it, but I will always be a die-hard fan, willing to offer up my copy up to anyone who feels ready, emotionally, to hold Jude’s hand from afar.