While A Little Life is shot through with pain, it's far from being all dark. Jude's suffering finds its equipoise in the decency and compassion of those who love him; the book is a wrenching portrait of the enduring grace of friendship. With her sensitivity to everything from the emotional nuance to the play of light inside a subway car, Yanagihara is superb at capturing the radiant moments of beauty, warmth and kindness that help redeem the bad stuff. In A Little Life, it's life's evanescent blessings that maybe, but only maybe, can save you.
But how far should we trust them? That's one of the many questions raised by A Little Life, a new novel by Hanya Yanagihara, whose acclaimed debut, The People in the Trees, came from seemingly nowhere 18 months ago. This new book is long, page-turny, deeply moving, sometimes excessive, but always packed with the weight of a genuine experience. As I was reading, I literally dreamed about it every night.
But the clearest sign that “A Little Life” will not be what we expect is the gradual focus of the text on Jude’s mysterious and traumatic past. As the pages turn, the ensemble recedes and Jude comes to the fore. And with Jude at its center, “A Little Life” becomes a surprisingly subversive novel—one that uses the middle-class trappings of naturalistic fiction to deliver an unsettling meditation on sexual abuse, suffering, and the difficulties of recovery. And having upset our expectations once, Yanagihara does it again, by refusing us the consolations we have come to expect from stories that take such a dark turn.