With her novel, A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara makes a beautiful piece of pottery. Then she drops it on the floor, where it shatters into pieces. Yet before the book finishes, Yanagihara has created what the Japanese call kintsugi. Kintsugi is the art of taking broken pottery and mending it, typically with gold, silver, or platinum. Kintsugi is stunning, just like A Little Life. It lets the brokenness of its characters show, and revels in our shock at the process.
A Little Life is the story of four college roommates: JB, Jude, Willem, and Malcolm. From varied backgrounds, these men somehow meld into lifetime friends and companions. Yanagihara follows their story for four decades, as well as, giving us pre-college back stories. So, be prepared for a tome.
I cannot write this review without some spoilers, so be warned. I’m trying to be delicate, but I have to expose some of the themes, if not the actual plot points.
While all the roommates have their moments in the spotlight, it is Jude who owns the novel’s story arc. Jude has lived an emotionally and physically difficult life. That’s an understatement, believe me. By telling his story, Yanagihara shows how the trauma of childhood sexual abuse affects the life of the child post abuse. On top of that, she delves into why people use self-harming or mind-altering substances as a coping mechanism.
The darkness in A Little Life is relentless. Their are moments of happiness, but Jude’s life is filled with trauma, tragedy, pain, grief, and unhappiness. And yet we see clearly how mental illness and PTSD can coexist with brilliant litigation, the ability to bake exquisite cakes, or have intimate friendships. We see how love can coexist with pain and heartbreak, and how even good friends will have a falling out.
A Little Life is a deeply depressing, eminently readable psychological study of one man in a community of friends. Hanya Yanagihara slips us so fully under Jude’s skin that parts are almost physically painful.
I especially laud her for truthfully capturing the process of grieving. She sugarcoats nothing; glosses over nothing. Her portrait of the stark reality of grief is in deepest blacks with white contrast that’s not soft and pleasant but harsh and hurtful. I imagine that Yanagihara has felt full-on, heart-clenching sorrow, which isn’t easy for an author to capture. She does.
Special kudos to audiobook narrator Oliver Wyman. I can’t imagine reading this book aloud, hour after hour, without falling apart myself. I’ll also encourage you to Google the photography of Peter Hujar. It’s his photo on the front cover, and his work is the perfect accompaniment to Yanagihara’s prose.
It is said that we never know the pain and suffering someone may be feeling in their heart and soul. No matter how well we know them. And certainly not based on what we see as a stranger, an outsider. A Little Life is a heart-in-throat reminder that even the most successful people live with some darkness. We all do, don’t we?