Reading Sensitive Subject Matters: A Review of A Little Life

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life is undoubtedly a huge critical and commercial success having won many awards including the 2015 Kirkus Prize in Fiction (Thank you, Wikipedia). It has been a bestseller for a few years now, and I finally read it in quarantine. This book was everything the critics and fans have raved about, yet I was taken aback in ways I did not expect. A Little Life begins with the story of four friends, Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude. It is a few years after they met in college, and they are all living in New York as they attempt to build their careers. The young men in the beginning of the book are struggling to find their way in the world but all have aspirations, and they are connected by their unique brotherly bond. This early part of the book is my favorite because the author’s depiction of friendship is so raw and organic. Already, I find myself rereading some of the passages of these four friends making memories in their crappy New York apartment. As the novel progresses, it focuses on Jude’s life and his many internal struggles, including his enduring struggle with self-harm, his physical disabilities, and his anxiety. The silver-lining in Jude’s life are the few people who are allowed to know and love him, yet even his loved ones are limited in how much they can know about Jude because he maintains a strict veil of secrecy over his past.

On the book’s cover, it shows a photograph of a man crying out in agony. That should have been my clue that this book would be a tear-jerker. Still, I couldn’t believe how sad it made me feel. At one point, I think I was sobbing while practically in fetal position, and my mom was considering hiding the book from me. I wasn’t prepared for that, especially not during a pandemic when my emotions were already running rampant on a daily basis. My midnight tears and sense of existential dread aside, I loved this book. I felt that the author, Hanya Yanagihara, tapped into something that felt very true to the human experience. I was really moved by this book. Without going into too many details, A Little Life is a story of love. Yanagihara has an excellent storytelling ability of depicting the evolution of relationships over time. When you are young, you cannot imagine not talking to your best friends every single day, yet these things happen. Some relationships strengthen while others weaken and fade. In the darker episodes in this book, Yanagihara also shows when people take advantage of one’s love. A Little Life shows just how much one human is willing to endure for acceptance and the coping mechanisms that we adopt in order to find relief from the sorrow of life. The thin thread of hope interwoven in this story shows that life, for all its pain and heartbreak, is worth it for the elusive moments of happiness that are intrinsic to the human experience.

Of course, having loved it so much, I want to recommend A Little Life to everyone willing to listen to me, but truth be told, this book is not for everyone. I would be really sensitive about who to recommend this book to because there is a lot of heavy subject matters (trigger warning) such as cutting, suicidal thoughts, assault, rape, depression, violence, etc. I don’t think I will ever find it in me to read A Little Life again cover-to-cover because it carried me somewhere emotionally that’s hard to express in words, but I’m glad that I read it. I recommend this book if the subject matters I mentioned are topics you feel comfortable and safe reading about. I consider myself somewhat of an empath, so many of the passages were extremely difficult to read. I found myself putting the book to the side and asking my mom to go on walks with me to clear my mind. If you like books such as Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, or Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami then you will probably enjoy A Little Life. Alternatively, if you like movies such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button or Brokeback Mountain I think you would enjoy reading this book. The story is emotionally heavy, and I wouldn’t want anyone to read this book if there is even a chance it will trigger negative memories or thoughts. Please be mindful, and if you think this book will not be good for your mental health then please look to some of my other book reviews for inspiration on your next read!

While Amazon and other major corporations are easy resources that I admittedly use frequently when buying books, consider purchasing a copy of A Little Life from a local book store such as this black-owned store in the Bronx called The Lit. Bar:

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