Bük Kloob is a series of book reviews loosely related to a book club I started.
Some of the most beautiful things are the most painful. Some things that hurt us, that devastate us, that make us want to tear our eyes out in sadness are the things that make us stronger. They teach us about love and life and each other—and that’s what Hanya Yanagihara’s book A Little Life is: a revelation of life through sadness.
The book is a 2015 breakout and was Man Booker Prize short-listed about four friends coming of age in New York City, finding and losing themselves in each other. The story focuses on one of the friends and his very difficult past, one that readers will talk about for years and how Yanagihara framed such an intense story. Yet, the intense parts—which deal with self-mutilation, sexual abuse, and overwhelming hate—are not without the lightness, the scenes and feelings from those surrounding this person and his (sad) little life: it’s a story of support, about different ideas of family, and love.
And it’s haunting. Obviously, I’m skating around names and identifiers and specifics because the book is such a gem that you have to discover everything for yourself. To know hyper specifics might vacuum out some of the book’s punch—and it is a punch. Yanagihara creates something so moving and so relatable, something that we can all see ourselves in, that it’s very difficult to not see the book as—in some ways—true. The story and its characters follow you around like the crying man on the book’s (brilliant) cover: you see him and you see the story and the relationships everywhere you look. Her book forces you to think about your relationships and to value them, to place them in the context of your own little life. Her story stays with you for quite some time, leaving a little ink stain on the back of your head that you will continue itching for weeks.
Beyond the story, Yanagihara’s way with words is brilliant. She has a simple yet poetic style. She speaks plainly and occasionally does that writerly thing we all love: uses big words like “vituperative” and “exsanguinate,” something that shows off her intelligence while making you more intelligent. The book is slightly overwritten but you don’t want it to be any shorter although the 720 pages of the book can seem daunting. She employs some very tricky techniques too like switching point of view, jumping back and forth in time, and balancing a very large cast. Most impressively, the book is entirely removed from time: there is no mentioning of historical events or technology or celebrities which makes the book, as The New Yorker noted, set in “an eternal present day.” These are not easy feats and she pulls them off with grace and ease—and that is exactly why the emotions the book displays and gives you are so well earned. She’s a fucking superstar writer. She never leaves you with a question for her.
The book, obviously, was a lot of work but surprisingly only took her eighteen months to complete. “I mainly wrote it at night and as it could be a very dark world to occupy,” she explained of the process. “It was always a relief to go off to work the next day.” Yes, the book covers difficult subjects but life is full of difficult subjects. Life is not always pretty and to shield yourself from your inevitable realities, to dance around only happy stories, is foolish. A Little Life is sad because life is sad—but life is also joyous and happy and full of so much warmth, which the book also carries as well. The book is so sad because it’s so happy, too. Most of what touched me about it is the relationship between the friends and family, particularly between Jude and Willem. That arc, that love, was the most emotional part for me. If you have ever loved a friend or significant other, you will understand what I mean.
A Little Life is a lot like the movie Amour, Michael Haneke’s 2012 film about an aging couple facing death. Amour is a masterpiece about life and plays the same sad chords Yanagihara plays—but the scope of Yanagihara’s book is so much bigger and broader and enveloping than Amour. The movie is a taste of the subject while this book is a feast. Both are nourishing.
As she explains, sometimes you have to “Upset the Reader” to make a point. “Don’t we read fiction exactly to be upset?” she asks. “A novel, in its truest form, is a questioning of what it means to be human, of what a life is.” And that is exactly why A Little Life is such an important book: it helps us question our lives.
You can purchase A Little Life in paperback now. I also read it via audiobook which was quite nice and, clearly, did not make it any easier to digest.