Skip to main content

7th March 2022

A Little Life: looking back at Hanya Yanagihara’s bestseller

In light of the release of To Paradise, we take a look at Hanya Yanagihara’s previous bestseller A Little Life to see why it is still shaking its readers to their core
A Little Life: looking back at Hanya Yanagihara’s bestseller
Photo: Sophie Berkley @ The Mancunion

Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life has gripped readers since its release in 2015 with its tormentingly beautiful depiction of the harsh reality of life. The countless trigger warnings that come with this novel hint at its raw nature, as Yanagihara does not shy away from the painful struggles many face but delves into them with full force, immersing readers in this dark world. 

I remember every aspect of my day being consumed by figuring out when I would have the time to read even just one more page of A Little Life. Although it’s over double the length of your average book, I was captivated by all 814 pages of this novel in the few weeks it took me to read it. Yanagihara is spectacular at simultaneously creating a beautiful world for these characters while surrounding them with the horrors and damage life throws at them. I never wanted to stop reading so I could get further into the world she so eloquently depicts. 

The novel focuses on four male characters, all of whom met at college and now spend their adult lives intertwined in New York City. I found myself captivated in learning every detail of their lives as the story follows them from their early 20s to their 50s. That may be the shortest overview of a book you have ever seen, but anything more feels like it would be a major spoiler!

A Little Life is split into seven separate parts, so readers are captivated by the narrator of that part, often hit with flashbacks that leave you desperate to know more. For the first 50 pages or so, Yanagihara lulls readers into a complete false sense of security – that this story is simply documenting the progression of these four men’s lives. However, she successfully shatters this illusion and creates a deep and dark world that you just can’t escape from as you learn about their complex relationships and others who have effected their lives. 

It’s clear that the main character within the group is Jude, with his past being alluded to throughout with an air of mystery and intrigue. His struggles with chronic illness and mental health underline how people go to great lengths to disguise the real version of themselves, because of the shame surrounding these issues. It is often assumed that this book is completely consumed by trauma and intense violence, which is partially correct, but there are visions of hope and strength between the friendships of these men which reign true throughout. 

Yanagihara delves into how childhood events can create such immense trauma that this will constantly impact certain aspects of your life, and explores this through Jude. The success he achieves in his adult life despite the horrors he undergoes as a child emphasises how proud he should be of overcoming parts of his trauma, but it always comes back to haunt him in the toughest of ways.

The idea that your physical body can represent the state of your mind is something I found fascinating. The scars and injuries that at times take over Jude’s body show how this can be an indication of what he is experiencing mentally, with his trauma and desire for recovery constantly being at war with one another. Yanagihara is undeniably brilliant at emphasising how there is no linear state for recovery to take place in, and that unfortunately this trauma can resurface at any time. The graphic descriptions and imagery of this destruction is rare to see in a novel, but it is necessary for readers to be able to fully understand these characters. This is one of the greatest successes of the book, and perhaps partly what has made it so popular.

Just as you think you’re about to learn a vital detail of Jude’s life, Yanagihara gets you so close to the truth and then rips it away from you by continuing with a different aspect of the story. Constantly wanting to know and understand who these characters were was all-consuming, and every detail of their life was written so intricately, I felt like the fifth member of their group.

I couldn’t tell you the last time I cried at a book – but this one had me in floods of tears for a long time after I finished reading. The harsh reality readers are plunged into depicts the cruelty of the world Yanagihara creates, but also does present glimmers of hope for these characters that you will inevitably fall in love with. This is certainly not a book for the faint hearted, but I would recommend it to everyone as an incredibly gripping and intense read.

Sophie Berkley

Sophie Berkley

Sub-editor at the Mancunion

More Coverage

Pairing Books With Taylor Swift’s The Tortured Poets Department 

To celebrate Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour coming to the UK, we’re here with the perfect book recommendation to match some of our favourite songs!

Audible plunges listeners into the depths of George Orwell’s 1984, leaving me dazed and hooked

Andrew Garfield stars as Winston Smith in ‘George Orwell’s 1984’, bringing Airstrip One to life through Audible’s dramatisation and leaving listeners craving more

The problem with publishing

We often view publishing as a way to make our voices heard on a public scale, but what if it is these same industries creating silence, too?

Spotify vs Audible: The battle for audiobook dominance

With streaming giant Spotify making its first steps into the world of audiobooks, could your next Spotify wrapped be dominated by Sally Rooney and Dolly Alderton rather than Taylor Swift?