Why I wouldn’t recommend ‘A Little Life’ to everyone

Content Warning: This article contains mentions sexual abuse, child abuse, self-harm and suicide, which some readers may find upsetting

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If you are sat on the train clutching your copy of ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara, I can guarantee that someone will approach with an apologetic, yet sympathetic look across their face, coming over to warn you about the gut-wrenching trauma that you are soon to endure. 

‘A Little Life’ has recently gained traction as TikTok’s book of the summer, sparking a variety of reaction videos and a reputation for utterly destroying its readers. What could this book possibly be about to receive such a response?

The critically acclaimed best seller is Yanagihara’s second novel, and is a story of friendship, loyalty and love, but also of, abuse, suffering and self-loathing. The novel focuses on the lives of four friends who live in New York: Jude St. Francis. a successful lawyer with a hidden past and a disability developed from his childhood; Willem Ragnarsson, Jude’s closest friend and a kind and handsome aspiring actor; Jean-Baptiste ‘JB’ Marion is a talented portrait painter who aspires for success in the art world; and Malcolm Irvine who works for a prestigious architecture firm and battles with his self-identity.

Throughout the 720 page novel, Yanagihara follows the ever-changing dynamics between this group as they grow up and battle wealth, success, romance, addiction and suffering. Jude is whom the novel and these relationships orbit around. To begin with, everything we learn of Jude is from the narrative of his three friends, who idolize, respect and adore him. From this literary approach, we are given a false sense of the happy life that Jude leads and the nature of the novel that we are about to embark on. 

In the following chapter, when we first hear Jude’s narrative, the essence of the novel shifts. From what is initially a reflection on college years and the friendships that have been formed, we soon learn that there is darker and more complicated side to Jude’s character. Yanagihara successfully balances these chapters which explore the torment of Jude’s childhood with chapters of love, friendship and career progression. Yet, if this balance is achieved, why do I not recommend ‘A Little Life’ to everyone?

“Yanagihara successfully balances these chapters which explore the torment of Jude’s childhood with chapters of love, friendship and career progression. Yet, if this balance is achieved, why do I not recommend ‘A Little Life’ to everyone?”

Let us begin by understanding the pure and raw depictions of love and friendship in ‘A Little Life’, as these moments are so beautifully portrayed, and are what will power you through the novel. Yanagihara highlights the unifying bond of friendship and how such love can match that of romantic relationships: 

‘Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.’

It is evident throughout how much each of the characters rely on the support given within their friendships, and more touchingly, how Jude begins to finally understand that he has these unbreakable bonds in his life, that are not bound by sex.  

The value of caring for others is most prominent throughout Willem’s narrative: ‘I know my life is meaningful because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.’ Yanagihara illustrates what it means to selflessly love another friend and draw meaning wholly from that, away from the superficial aspects of life. The desperation to make Jude happy and to have him see himself as Willem sees him is one of the more heart-rending constants throughout the novel. 

To delve into why I would not recommend ‘A Little Life’ to everyone, it is important to understand the striking and intense descriptions throughout the novel about self-harm, suicide, child and sexual abuse. In an interview, Yanagihara states that ‘one of the things she wanted to do with this book was create a protagonist who never got better’ which I think is really important in highlighting how trauma can affect the way in which people navigate life, both in the beliefs and relationships that they hold. As harrowing as it was to be a helpless outsider reading as Jude’s mental state continued to spiral, I believe it was one of the most real depictions of the realities many people face as a support to trauma survivors that I have ever seen in a novel. 

“As harrowing as it was to be a helpless outsider reading as Jude’s mental state continued to spiral, I believe it was one of the most real depictions of the realities many people face as a support to trauma survivors that I have ever seen in a novel”

The delineation of suffering and punishment is somewhat subversive, as redemption and healing is not offered as a solution in ‘A Little Life’. The themes of shame and abuse in this disturbing novel reminded me of the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, which involves extreme and grotesque descriptions of the sadistic abuse the main character Lisbeth Salander endured. I had to take a break from many of the graphic scenes and have a moment of sadness and reflection, which I felt was also necessary with ‘A Little Life’. 

Yanagihara delves deeply into the blame Jude carries through his life and the punishment he believes he should endure. Jude’s mental state seems to always depict an ongoing debate between his present and past self; the debate being whether he ever deserves happiness: ‘I don’t think happiness is for me, Jude had said at last, as if Willem had been offering him a dish he didn’t want to eat. But it is for you Willem.’ He longs to see his friends experience such success and happiness, yet is unable to accept a similar fate for himself. This is where themes of suicide and self-harm are a constant throughout the novel, and Yanagihara’s relentless downhill trajectory will begin to completely devastate you. 

So, no. I would not recommend ‘A Little Life’ to everyone. I found it a beautiful, torrential and heart-breaking read. There were many distressing, frustrating and also wholly wonderful moments, but with every twang of pain, every tear, it was completely worth it for me. Yet, this darkly intense novel is not for everyone. It is an extreme deep-dive into many different aspects of trauma, abuse and suffering, which, although eye-opening and raw, it would not be an easy nor enjoyable read for many people who suffer with their own trauma. If you are to take on this profoundly moving novel, believe every trigger warning that comes your way and prepare to question everything you know about love, friendship and redemption. 

Image credit: Moyan Brenn via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Why I wouldn’t recommend ‘A Little Life’ to everyone

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