Review: A Little Life

Here’s the thing. I have absolutely no idea how to review A Little Life. No clue. I have feelings, lots of feelings, but I don’t really know exactly what I want to say.

I got lost in this book. That’s the first thing.

I fell into it and couldn’t find a way back out, finding myself entirely absorbed by Jude, by JB and Malcolm and Willem, by their lives. Any spare second I had, I was reading it, and when I wasn’t I was thinking about it, to the point that it felt like those boys were my life and my reality was just the story, the lines got so very blurred. It’s 720 pages long and I thought it would take me the whole of September to read but it took me just 9 days.  I had all these feelings, I was just lost in this deep and dark and complex story and the whole time I didn’t know whether I loved it or hated it.
(Honestly: I still don’t know whether I loved it or I hated it.)

I was reading this book and wondering why the hell it had taken me so long.

I loved the characters – rarely have I read characterisation like this, if ever, and I loved these men, flaws and all, I loved the narrative; the jumping timeframe; the way it’s never explicitly stated at what point in their history we’re at but how somehow I knew. I loved how lyrical the prose was. I mean, this is some seriously beautiful writing, some of the best I’ve read perhaps and there is no denying that Hanya Yanagihara can write; it was a hard book to read, sometimes it made me feel things that I honestly didn’t know how to comprehend, but at the same time it was so easy to read, because the writing, it’s just exquisite.

This is it, I thought to myself in the beginning, this is The Book. This is The Book – I get now why people have been going crazy for it, this might be the best thing I’ve read in a while, and I’ve read some REALLY GOOD BOOKS.

This book (annoyingly as it turned out, but we’ll get to that,) broke my heart. It left me at times not knowing what to do with myself, feeling completely sucker punched and also awed that somebody could make me feel that way just with words on a page. When I say it broke my heart, I don’t say that lightly, by the way, and people who haven’t read this should know that it is hard. It’s tragic and it’s painful and it’s cruel and I really did have to put it down and walk away and I really did have to ring my best guy and make him talk to me about nice things to try and take away the weird tightness in my chest and it broke my heart. It made me go cold, it made my stomach drop and it was relentless. There’s a section in the middle called The Happy Years. DO NOT BE FOOLED. I say again: relentless.

It's a strange and somehow wonderful thing really, how a book that can really only be described as bleak can leave you feeling like you’ve experienced something wondrous and yet that is how I felt as I read it, like I had been invited into something I wasn’t entirely sure I should have been, intruding on something incredibly private and raw.

But there’s a but. And it came at around 88% of the way through and I just wanted to cry. Actually no, I didn’t want to cry: I wanted to throw things.

I got to 88% of the way through, and I put the book down, said ‘fuck this shit’ and picked up a kitten instead, and then I went and made a batch of mushroom soup because I just couldn’t, and that’s when something that if I’m honest, had been niggling at me the whole way through, really made me cross.
Here’s the thing:  the whole time I was reading this book and I was feeling all these things - I had a weird nervy pain in my chest and the whole way through I had this sense of foreboding that only got worse as I went along – I was a little bit mad at myself for being so easily manipulated, because that’s how it felt.

I felt like I was being manipulated by Yanagihara into feeling the things I was feeling and it bugged me somewhat because I like to think I am smarter than that and yet there I was. And I know, I know that’s what books do, I know that the very point of them really is to make you feel whatever it is the writer wants you to feel when you are reading their words and that if you do feel those things then that is mission accomplished and everybody should high five, but, and you’ll only understand this if you’ve read this book, there can be such a thing as too much and this book was too much. Or rather, by the end it became too much and I hate that, I hate that I have come away feeling like Yanagihara didn’t know where to stop.

At points throughout the book I kept sort of thinking ‘no, really, why, this is too much, tone it down a little bit, there’s no need to keep on doing this’ but Yanagihara kept right on doing it and I kept right on being swept along in it and turning the pages when I should have been sleeping and feeling all the things to the point that I felt drained, completely emotionally drained, then, I got to that point at 88% and I just lost it. It went too far and then I was ANGRY because that step too far kind of undid everything else up to that point, it made a mockery of its own self entirely and I just lost it, and why why why???

It’s such a shame because I’ll say it again – the writing is exquisite and I won’t lie, there are parts of this book that I hand-on-heart absolutely loved and also I actually feel like the world needs more books that do what I think this one wanted to do and I am so so so glad that I read it and therein lies the problem, really. This book, for me, it kind of ended up losing all credibility, becoming less about this guy who has endured these things and this important story about abuse and survival and hope and love and more about Yanagihara trying to see how far she can push her readers.

She pushed this one too far.

 IT’S SUCH A SHAME that I ended it thinking fuck this book when I should have – could have quite easily – ended it thinking wow.

Am I glad I read it? Yes, yes I am.

Do I think it’s incredibly written? Yes, yes I do.

Do I think it is brave and important? Also yes.

Do I think you should read it? If you’d have asked me yesterday morning I’d have said yes – I would have told you to wait until you were in A Good Place, but I’d have said yes, give it a go. Now? Now I really don’t know…

I haven’t even given it any stars on Goodreads because I’m angry and conflicted and I honestly don’t know whether it deserves 4 or 2. I do know this though – I finished it on Sunday and I woke up this morning still thinking about it. Make of that what you will.