A Little Life


Hanya Yanagihara


For a while, they would mourn him, because they were good people, the best, and he was sorry for that—but eventually they would see that their lives were better without him in it. They would see how much time he had stolen from them; they would understand what a thief he had been, how he had suckled away all their energy and attention, how he had exsanguinated them. He hoped they would forgive him; he hoped they would see that this was his apology to them. He was releasing them—he loved them most of all, and this was what you did for people you loved: you gave them their freedom.

                                       from  A Little Life


There will be tears

If you have heard anything about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, you probably know that it’s been nominated for the National Book Award for fiction, as well as for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. You may have seen that it’s on a number of Best Books of 2015 lists. Powerful and disturbing, A Little Life is probably the best book I read this year, and the most unsettling.

In brief, it’s a story about four friends who meet in college in their teens, and follows them into their fifties. JB (Jean Baptiste) is Haitan-American, gay, and an artist; Malcolm is biracial, heterosexual, and an architect; Willem from Wyoming of Scandinavian descent, is an actor with an actor’s handsome looks, and sexually is, um, versatile.

And then there is Jude of whom little is known. His friends are not even sure of his race. He fits into no category. JB describes him as “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past.” Possessing a brilliant mind for math and law, Jude’s background remains a mystery—he never speaks of his childhood or family, will not allow anyone to touch him, walks with a limp he barely acknowledges, never shows his body, even when swimming. Jude, and the secrets he carries, is the core of this book.

Gradually, the reader, along with his friends, learns the story of Jude’s past. It is horrific in parts—a number of reviewers admit there were times they had to put the book aside. Like driving past a gruesome highway accident, one is drawn to look and not look.

And in parts it is very sad (My advice: Invest in Kleenex stock before reading this book.) But if it depicts the worst in humanity that Jude suffered, the story is also lightened and brightened by the kindness and the love shown to him by his friends, his doctor, by his professors and mentors. The question is whether the love people hold for him will be sufficient to save him from the damage of his past:

“Willem,” Jude said, and was quiet. “I think I turned out pretty normal, all things considered, don’t you?” and Willem had heard the strain, and the hope, in his voice.

“No,” he said, and Jude winced. “I think you turned out extraordinary, all things considered…”

Reading A Little Life is an emotionally wrenching experience, capturing in beautiful prose the human condition in all its horror and cruelty and in all its beauty and compassion.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (November 25, 2015-January 10, 2016.) Reprinted with permission.