Love Letters: Hanya Yanagihara

I love reading. Always have.

I know when I’ve read a showstopper though – I go back for a second run.

I read Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak twice in a row; a few things happened which caused a recalibration, and that book turned out to be one of the reasons I knew I had to leave the job I was at.

With Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, I needed some space between takes. I picked it up by chance in the library in 2017, and I only read half of the blurb before I knew I wanted to give it a go. I love stories that span over many years as characters grow, change, learn, and come to terms with the consequences of their actions; A Little Life traverses thirty-five years of friendship. While its size is daunting, Yanagihara had earned a nomination for the Man Booker Prize with the novel. Worth a shot, I thought.

I finished it for the second time last week, because it’s the kind of story that settled in my bones and I wanted that magical feeling that comes with savouring something, creating space, forgetting what it was that drew you in and coming back to it like an old friend.

I have never read a book so visceral, so captivating, so devastating like A Little Life. The story focuses on four insecure college students in New York with their own demons, insecurities and privileges. Over the 700 pages, as they respectfully become a litigator, architect, artist and actor, the rollercoaster of the men’s unfolding lives is woven achingly with the time preceding when the quartet met at Hood. The past frames the present, and explores childhood trauma, mental illness, the power of self-belief and the simple salvation of close friendships.

Over the years the book spans, the focus isn’t on what each man achieves; Yanagihara expertly weaves the narrative so we drawn to the little things: hence, the title. She uses thousands of words to describe what the scars on Jude’s back look like. The feeling JB gets when he first lights up. Willem’s anxiety about his growing fame. Harold’s fear of doing the wrong thing as a new father. Then, she contrasts the significance of this minutiae with fell swoops of omniscient commentary that show how random and ultimately meaningless the four men’s lives are. Yanagihara shows the little moments in little lives, but makes them big for the characters and the reader.

“He had looked at Jude, then, and had felt that same sensation he sometimes did when he thought, really thought of Jude and what his life had been: a sadness, he might have called it, but it wasn’t a pitying sadness; it was a larger sadness, one that seemed to encompass all the poor striving people, the billions he didn’t know, all living their lives, a sadness that mingled with a wonder and awe at how hard humans everywhere tried to live, even when their days were so very difficult, even when their circumstances were so wretched. Life is so sad, he would think in those moments. It’s so sad, and yet we all do it.” 

A Little Life is graphic and doesn’t shy away from some very heavy topics, so for this reason I don’t recommend that book to many people. But I wanted to convey my gratitude to Yanagihara, who has been the first novelist I’ve read to write poetry in the body of a page of text. Her effortless way of describing grief, pain, abandonment, love or something as mundane as a subway ride from Manhattan to Long Island took me aback, page after page.

“The other aspect of those weekday-evening trips he loved was the light itself, how it filled the train like something living as the cars rattled across the bridge, how it washed the weariness from his seatmates’ faces and revealed them as they were when they first came to the country, when they were young and America seemed conquerable. He’d watch that kind light suffuse the car like syrup, watch it smudge furrows from foreheads, slick gray hairs into gold, gentle the aggressive shine from cheap fabrics into something lustrous and fine. And then the sun would drift, the car rattling uncaringly away from it, and the world would return to its normal sad shapes and colors, the people to their normal sad state, a shift as cruel and abrupt as if it had been made by a sorcerer’s wand.” 

I am thrilled to have stumbled on this book, and had the time to read it again. I’ve never encountered a wordsmith like Yanagihara, and I’m so glad I did. A Little Life certainly isn’t for everyone, but it was for me.