2015 Man Booker Longlist: A Little Life by Yanagihara
Book Worm is breezing through the Longlist books and will have more reviews to come soon. Next up is a book I recently finished: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. Keep reading to find out what I thought and where it ranks among the 2015 longlist books we have read thus far.
A Little Life by Hana Yanagihara
Published in: 2015
Reviewed by: Jen
Find it/buy it here: A Little Life: A Novel
A Little Life is a superb book and deserves the hype it is getting, with talk that it is favored to take home the Booker Prize (although the judges rarely comply). The novel follows four college friends as they navigate careers, love, friendship and life and death. At the center of the four friends is Jude, a mysterious young man who suffers from severe leg and back pain and whose body is covered in scars. Jude shares little about his own life and his three friends — Malcom, Wilhem, & JB — know better than to ask him about his childhood. The book alternates perspectives throughout, although Jude remains central. As the novel progresses, the story of Jude’s past slowly unfolds to reveal a history of abuse and unspeakable trauma.
I LOVED this book. At 700+ pages it was an emotionally challenging read that takes hold of you from page one and puts you through the wringer. I cried. A LOT. And, I’m not much of a cryer. Yanagihara makes you fall in love with the characters then makes you suffer as they make some horrible decisions, try to reconcile their past, and struggle to find love and self-worth. Jude is portrayed with an emotional sensitivity that I found surprising. Yanagihara gives readers a real sense of how trauma can impact both the victim and his social circle. As a psychologist, I often find myself irritated by portrayals of mental illness in books, but here I found myself amazed at how well the author portrayed a difficult personality profile whose frustrating actions do not take away from the love you feel for him.
It can be a difficult read since there is a lot of disturbing content including multiple forms of abuse. At times, I felt like the author was going a little too far in piling on the abuse history. So many horrific things happened to one of the characters that it bordered on sensationalist and took away from some of the realism of the book. The content isn’t particularly graphic since much of it is left to the imagination, but it is nevertheless heart-wrenching. But while the history of abuse is prominent, the book isn’t about abuse. It’s about relationships and some of them are so beautiful that their warmth makes you cry from the happy moments.
The writing is truly fantastic. Even mundane events are made to shine and descriptions very subtly shift based on which character perspective we are reading. For example, take this passage from one of JB’s chapter:
The other aspect of those weekday-evening trips he loved was the light itself, how it filled the train like something living as the cars rattled across the bridge, how it washed the weariness from his seat mates’ faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country, when they were young and America seemed conquerable. He’d watch that kind light suffuse the car like syrup, watch it smudge furrows from foreheads, slick gray hears into gold, gentle the aggressive shine from cheap fabrics into something lustrous and fine. And then the sun would drift, the car rattling uncaringly away from it, and the world would return to its normal sad shapes and colors, the people to their normal sad state, a shift as cruel and abrupt as if it had been made by a sorcerer’s wand.
JB, is an artist, thus his observations are seen through the eyes of an artist. Other characters focus on different aspects that are relevant to their own important identities. Picking up on these subtleties makes this book that much more special.
Other favorite quotes:
You have never known fear until you have a child, and maybe that is what tricks us into thinking that it is more magnificent, because the fear itself is more magnificent. Every day, your first thought is not “I love him” but “How is he?” The world overnight, rearranges itself into an obstacle course of terrors. I would hold him in my arms and wait to cross the street and would think how absurd it was that my child, that any child, could expect to survive this life. It seemed as improbable as the survival of one of those late-spring butterflies – you know, those little white ones- I sometimes saw wobbling through the air, always just millimeters away from smacking itself against a windshield.
Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return.
I hope this book makes the shortlist. I truly loved it. I would give it a 5-star rating under my usual system, but here is my scoring for our Longlist criteria with a few points taken off for originality (there are lots of books out there on abuse, friendship, etc).
Available in English: 1/1
Published in the UK: 1/1
Character Complexity: 5/5
Writing Quality: 5/5
I highly recommend that you try this book. I’m pretty sure it will be on the shortlist and it was very good. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for this author in the future. You can purchase your copy here: A Little Life: A Novel
Have you read this book? What did you think? If not, is it a book you want to read?
Our rankings thus far of long list books:
1. A Little Life: 18/20 (Jen’s rating)
2. Lila: 15/20 (Book Worm’s Rating)
3: The Green Road (Jen & Book Worm’s ratings) & Satin Island 13/20 (Book Worm’s Rating)
Next up for me: The Fishermen. Stay tuned for Book Worm’s upcoming reviews of the Illuminations and Spool of Blue Thread (one of these might make it on to our leaderboard).