A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A 2015 Man Booker shortlister and a bit of a misery fest… a lot of a misery fest. Despite moments illuminating Hanya's undoubted talent, the slide into darker and deeper despair isn't easy reading, especially over 736 pages.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 736 Date: August 2015
Publisher: Picador
ISBN: 978-1447294818

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Shortlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude don't have a lot in common apart from their friendship. They gravitated together at college and remain close as they become successful in careers as different as the theatre and architecture. However even hopes for successful future can't erase the blight of the past for one of them. Jude is physically disabled from a cause that isn't genetic or congenital. In fact the cause isn't even something he's shared with the other three. The events around it stem back to his childhood and haunt each thought and action he takes as well as his ability to take them.

The Man Booker 2015 short list has been dubbed a misery fest by those who have read more of them than I have. After reading A Little Life I can see what they meant.

I loved the first quarter of the novel which starts out as a study of the dynamics of friendship. Four lads fresh out of college and sustaining their alliance into the world at large with different personalities and aspirations. Then gradually the focus changes.

Rather than continuing to look evenly at all four, Jude takes centre stage and the others' literary value is in how they react to him rather than how they react to the world and each other. It's almost like a cut-and-shut job on two books, this being the pleat in the body work where the second novel starts. Although even realising this I had hope.

We definitely need more books that examine the long term effects of disability and abuse realistically. Indeed we learn of the events from Jude's childhood in unflinching, well told flashback tinged with a feeling of authenticity rather than sanitisation. We see how experiences of pain, both psychological and physical, can isolate and enforce secrecy behind the victim's impenetrable walls. In this way Jude becomes the centre of his own universe through circumstances rather than desire and we're in there with him.

There are moments of brightness and warmth. For instance I defy anyone not to cheer inwardly as they read the mature lawyer Harry's touching request to adopt the 30 year old Jude. Ok, Harry and his wife's lives haven't exactly been misery free but he's a refreshing voice in the piece, standing out not just because he's a lovely man. His is also the only narrative coming to us as direct first person.

So, considering the well written passages and the warmth of the lovely Harry, what do I think is wrong with the novel? I've thought about that one long and hard.

This is definitely a marmite novel in that the critics citing it as one of their 'best evers' even out against the 'couldn’t take any more's'. For some the sticking point comes via the female characters all being used as literary wall paper in order to focus on the men. Others comment on how the students are all too successful – no one has an average career and how they're all too forgiving of Jude. None of those bother me, in fact I even fully accept Jude shunning happiness or lesser misery on a regular basis. This is a reminder of the serious effects of his previous experience. I therefore applaud Hanya's avoidance of a Hollywood take on it. What I do mind is that it takes over 700 pages to knock each weight-bearing pillar of optimism from our readerly grasp.

It does contain the bones of a great novel communicating the depths of despair that abuse sufferers live with once the news media have all forgotten about it. However taking 14 hours of emotion-wringing reading to reach the conclusion rendered me immune to genius. But there again I haven't predicted a Man Booker winner yet so you never know!

(Thank you, Picador, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you'd like to continue with the Man Booker 2015 shortlist theme, we recommend (on a more cheery note) A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler.

Booklists.jpg A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is in the Man Booker Prize 2015.

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Buy A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara at Amazon.com.


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