A Love Letter to ‘A Little Life’

I’ve had so many books that have been dear to me – the sort of book that you read and read, for comfort, mainly; the sort of book that would unravel and skip if it was a tape, that would fray if it was a warm jumper. The Harry Potters, the first two Bridget Jones books, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt were all small homes that could be entered at any time. They were comfortable, even though there were parts of them that weren’t comforting. None of them, though, were as uncomforting yet somehow homely as Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’ – a book which, tonight, is in with a strong chance of winning the Man Booker prize. This is my love letter to it.

Since finishing it two weeks ago, I’ve had it on my bedside every night; I’ve filled up with tears thinking about it in places as diverse as Sainsbury’s and a club and almost every room in my flat; I think about it when I listen to songs on the bus. It’s a big book, but even bigger are the tendrils it extends into all parts of your life. And for all of the literary merit the Man Booker panel have evidently recognised (precise, beautiful sentences; a structure that allows secrets to be revealed as carefully as in a thriller; settings that are as vivid and lush as a painting) there’s a lot of things that truly pack a punch because of the context. Rich, layered, complex gay characters; mental illness presented unflinchingly; a horrific focus on child abuse, the sort of focus that understandably leads to many people choosing not to read the book. Yanagihara not only creates a world – she represents one. For anyone who sees themself in her New York, the detail with which she writes her characters is something close to love. Almost honour.

And the characters! ‘A Little Life’ lacks the tinge of irony a number of modern novels use when describing their characters. Yanagihara is sincere, writing with an affection that makes it easy for readers to adore JB and Malcolm and Willem and Jude as well. They are not antiheroes or redeemed villains. It’s a tale that mixes realism (almost naturalism – some scenes are flawless little dioramas, whole emotional scenes occuring in living rooms like pressure cookers) with a Victorian rags-to-riches tale, each part balancing out the other. Jude is kind of a saint, kind of a Pip-from-Great-Expectations, but he’s also someone you can imagine talking to or seeing on the bus. This gives ‘A Little Life’ a heightened quality, like the colours are turned up too bright on everything that happens to a real-world person in the course of a life.

Other things I love: Hanya Yanagihara is toweringly good at knowing when to show and when to tell, important when a story lasts as many decades as this one does; the New York in the book is as diverse as the one in the world; the friendships between the main characters are the best I’ve read. There are passages that make you think “Yes! Of course!”, writing that shines a light on something that had always existed unworded and unrecognised.

If ‘A Little Life’ doesn’t win tonight, it’s utterly fine. Word of mouth means ‘A Little Life’ is about to have an extraordinary winter. Anyway: I love it. I love Jude St. Francis, and the little apartment on Lispenard Street, and Harold and his Thanksgiving meals and Willem’s care and JB’s committment and Malcolm’s solidity and the way love is sometimes fearless and sometimes filled to the brim with fear.

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One thought on “A Love Letter to ‘A Little Life’

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  1. I’m so glad I’m not the only one still swimming in A Little Life. It is an ocean of a book. I’m on my second reading and I doubt that will be enough. I love that you’ve written this love letter, because for all its agony and unanswered questions, A Little Life feels like a love letter to the human experience. Even in its most horrific depths, there is still the precious sparkle of honestly, friendship, art, forgiveness, and love.

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