Book Review – A Little Life

I recently read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, and 814 pages later, it’s fair to say that it’s the most brilliant/devastating book I’ve ever read.

Disclaimer: before you proceed, you should know that I won’t be giving context or insight into the plot of this book, I’ll just be discussing my emotions and opinions on it. So no need to worry about spoilers as such, but if you don’t want to know anything at all about the book, you should probably stop reading.

Reading is something that I should do more of. After finishing my Master’s degree I swore that with all the extra time I was suddenly about to accrue, I would read a lot more. Fast forward one year, and all I’ve actually done with all my newfound spare time is binge watch ‘First Dates’ and ‘Don’t Tell The Bride’. Quite a while ago now, my wonderful best friend told me about a book that I absolutely-had-to-read, one that has made it into her ‘top 5 ever read’. This meant business. This friend has been avidly reading since the womb, so I will give anything that she recommends a chance. She’s also one of the most intelligent people I know, so if she says it’s worth a read, then it’s worth a read.

The book is called ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara. What she forgot to inform me is that this book is 814 pages long. I was told to stick at it for the first 200 pages or so (you can imagine my face – 200 pages is a book in itself!), and if I could get through that I’d get through the whole book, so I did.

I’ll never be able to review this book crediting it with all it deserves, and I think that different people will take something different away from it. A Little Life was definitely the most powerful book I’ve ever read, by a long stretch, but it was also the most difficult. A friend asked me would I recommend it, and I really had to think about my answer. The book left me despairing and emotionally exhausted on several occasions. I sometimes had to stop reading and come back to it with a clearer mind, because it got a bit much for my poor, emotional little brain to handle.

That being said, I’ve never read a book that has given me such profound joy. I have cried at books before – obviously, because I am an emotional mess at the best of times, but this book was different. There was an occasion that I physically sobbed with joy, feeling completely overwhelmed. I’m not joking, I had to take myself off in secret and let it all out before I got a tension headache (did that when I watched A Star is Born in public – never again). There’s emotional rollercoasters and then there’s A Little Life.

But what I really enjoyed about the book was its ability to portray the intricate details of various lives and backgrounds over an entire lifetime. We see snippets into childhoods of characters, right through to watching them develop into their old age. I felt a deep connection with people who don’t actually exist and all I wanted to do was meet some of these non-existent people and tell them I have no words to explain how wonderful they are (ironic!) There were times when I felt unable to identify with characters at all, and times where I had nothing but complete and utter pride, admiration and respect for them. I was shocked by much of the content and felt bereft when I finished the book. I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I knew I’d just read a masterpiece (as I’m writing this I realise I have never described a book as a masterpiece!).

The book opened my eyes and my mind in several ways. I am always grateful for my life, but it made me rethink so many of my views. I became grateful for smaller things that admittedly I otherwise take for granted, but also more mindful of the behaviour of others. I observed behaviours and actions which gave me a desperate reminder that what you see in people isn’t always the full picture – it sometimes isn’t even close. I know it’s obvious, but it emphasised that the way somebody is acting can have such deep-rooted reasons behind it, that I, in my life as I know it, couldn’t possibly begin to imagine or understand. I felt disturbed and helpless at times, witnessing somebody’s irrational and self-limiting behaviours destroy lives. The whole saying ‘be kind – you never know what somebody is going through’ rang so true with this book, that it was both a gentle but devastating reminder to always be kind to others. I vowed to try to be more mindful of other people and their circumstances.

The book showed me unconditional true love, in many forms. I observed the most beautiful relationships, which made me reflect on and be grateful for my own. The love between parents and children (in any sense of the words), between families and friends and everybody in between was so prominent throughout this book, that it beautifully illustrated both the tragic lows and euphoric highs of life and humanity as we know it. Hanya Yanagihara has so eloquently provoked every emotion on my emotion scale (is this a thing?) and presented a thorough depiction of human life.

Which brings me to my final point. I keep thinking about the book’s 3 main themes when somebody asks ‘what’s it about?’. It’s tough because there are so many themes interwoven amongst all 814 pages. However, I have settled on kindness, love and tragedy. I was astounded by the unconditional kindness and love, but it was by far the most tragic book I have ever read. It took me a little while to stop thinking about it after I finished. I do recommend it, but prepare yourself and devote the time to it that it deserves!

I am in awe of Yanagihara and her incredible mind, all I want to do now is ask her to join me for a glass of wine or 10 so I can ask her on her views on life and the world, and ask her to teach me how to write masterpieces for the rest of my life! How fantastic would that be?!


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