Man Booker nominated, and surely not the last we’ll hear of this novel (at least from me), I’ll certainly never forget the summer that I read “A Little Life” by Hanya Yanagihara.
This novel starts off resembling almost any other New York City genre novel, with an obligatory ensemble cast of friends that struggle to find/define success in their formative years. In this novel you will follow four lives in a sweeping and clean account that transpires over thirty years. At times, these characters – much to my own annoyance- feel like caricatures: the trust funded half black, half white architect; the struggling Haitian American artist; an even more struggling, but terribly good looking, actor; finally, the emotionally unavailable polymath, harboring a dark secret. It is this secret -revealed in piecemeal by the author- that becomes the redeemer of these clichéd personality types, as it pulls the reader into one of the most darkly intense dramas about the meaning of friendship, addiction, abuse and what drives us to continue under the most tragic of circumstances. Though scenes of sexual abuse and self-mutilation are tough to read, it is the moments of light that make this novel worth reading. These moments are short lived, spanning only sentences at times, but it is these moments of tenderness and beauty that are also the author’s greatest achievement: making the choice to emphasize the mundane in individual story arcs as the anchor of this novel, as opposed to what could have easily been dropped in favor of the drama surrounding characters that all ascend to the highest and lowest trajectories of their exclusive existences.
At the heart of this novel is a well crafted, multi-layered, but simple character driven story, where everything is just so matter-of-fact. For example, being gay is just that, with no struggle to define, or defend the lifestyle: when in love with each other the characters are merely in love with each other. Even the repeated scenes of sexual abuse come off as clockwork in the execution of the act itself, leaving the reader to feel as dejected and debased as the victim. Finally, the exterior world is meaningless, with little to no reference to anything of currency (politics, fashion, global events). This truly worked for this novel as it cut to what, at the end of the day, could be the most important state of our existence: the interior of the self, and the family and friendships that orbit around it.