Brief Book Review: A Little Life

The night had become the same night he’d had hundreds of times before: the same rhythms, the same despair, the same awful feeling of suspension.

A book’s greatest challenge is crafting a series of characters that are so vivid, so tangible, that they emotionally invest the reader in their story. It’s rare for a book to do this right. It’s rarer for a book, 500 pages in, to shatter this emotional investment in just a few paragraphs. This was my experience with A Little Life.

A Little Life follows four best friends as they live out their intricate, complicated lives in New York. One aspires to be an actor, another loves constructing model houses, the third spends their evenings before an artist’s canvas. The forth, Jude, is different. He’s shy, secretive, and suffers from bursts of chronic pain that leave him paralysed. It’s in Jude’s head that we spend the most time, and its his decisions that dictate the events that unfold between these four friends.

There’s no doubt Hanya Yanagihara is a master storyteller. I wouldn’t describe the first 500 pages of A Little Life as enjoyable, but rather, endurable. Yanagihara places you inside a lifetime of trauma and suffering. Not detached, physical suffering, but the kind that festers in the psyche long after the danger has passed.

The book’s timeline expands and contracts like an erratic accordion. Events that are mere pages apart have years separating them in the lives of our characters, evidenced only by a sudden house change or breakup. It’s a disorientating and exhausting read that leaves you feeling a little older every time you put the book down. Yet the story contains just enough mystery and hope to keep you going.

So it was surprising, three quarters of the way through, that I found my suspension of disbelief violently broken. In just a few paragraphs, I went from being deeply invested in the characters on the page, to becoming almost indifferent. It’s hard to go into why without revealing aspects fo the book’s plot, but in short, I found the depiction of systematic child sex slavery, jarring and excessive. I could no longer picture this world as our own, and so found it difficult to care for the characters inside it.

It’s obvious from the book’s success that this was not a universal reaction among fellow readers, and I’m happy to hear others were able to resonate with the story until the very end. In any case, A Little Life was a wholly unique reading experience that delved into the mind of someone with a heavily skewed perspective of the world.

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