Humanity’s Beauty Amidst Depravity
(Spoiler Free) Review of A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Out of the 3,000 or so books I’ve read in my 24 years of living, never have I read a novel that has affected me this deeply. It’s the most fucked up novel I’ve ever read (I felt so sick at the halfway point of p.350 that I had to stop reading and couldn’t pick it up again for 3 weeks)… and also the most beautiful.
Chronicling the lives of four friends in New York—Willem, JB, Malcolm and Jude, the last being the central character—we witness their lives from college to old age. It’s also deftly interspersed with flashbacks from Jude’s dark (an understatement) past which is revealed gradually and painfully over the 720 pages that make up Hanya Yanagihara’s brilliantly written tome and masterpiece.
If I had to describe A Little Life in one word: DEPRAVITY. Hanya doesn’t shy away from portraying the depravity of humans, rather detailing every abominable act relentlessly—and this comprises 95% of the novel. I kept getting angry, upset, even nauseous, over and over and over. So why did I keep reading? What made me persist?
Because of the other 5%. Because of its belief (albeit wavering) in the beauty of humanity. Because Hanya clearly believes in the saving power of love in the face of utter hopelessness and desolation. Because the love showered unconditionally upon Jude by his friends, especially Willem, reflects a pure and sacrificial love that is close to the truth. Because no matter how irrational it may be, no matter how little we understand why and how and what for, it’s worth living, worth fighting to live, even when logically it makes complete sense to die, to end our lives. Because even at the end of the fight (even if only slightly), there’s even a chance at redemption (even if only pretension).
Depicting such extreme and horrific realities doesn’t allow for a neutral response. The world is fucked up: this is unambiguously laid out and instinctively comprehended. We all differ in our understanding of what is “right” and what is “wrong” on the spectrum, but A Little Life produces a unanimous: ‘this is SO WRONG’. Thus explains the backlash and controversy, but also its unabashed acclaim: the former readers must have had their buttons pushed in a discomforting manner, while the latter were led to head in the opposite direction towards hope (which though faint is naturally magnified by our innate desire for grace and salvation). Either way, every reader is forced to confront the presented reality and make a response. And whatever our beliefs, whatever our stance on life, I find that the majority of us will discover we’re too damn stubborn on continuing to live to give up or succumb to despair, because we want to believe that somehow, in some way, life is beautiful.
I cannot lightheartedly recommend this novel to everyone. In fact, there are many to whom I wouldn’t recommend it at all. I give you ample warning: this is not an easy read. But at the end of the day, I’ll also say it’s worth reading, and that I wholeheartedly recommend A Little Life, that is, only if you’re ready to face life’s toughest realities and deepest questions.
Disclaimer: this book is sure to change your life, as it did mine.