Never have I approached a book with such trepidation and, let’s face it, pure terror – both at what I would find between its pages and the time it would take me to read it (and recover from it). As per my previous post, I picked this little guy out of the lucky dip the day before all of my library holds became available, so there was already some time pressure involved. And knowing what I did about the content, I was pretty sure it wasn’t going to be a quick and easy read. Nevertheless, I soldiered on, as a reader must, armed with a collection of love stories beside my bed in case of emergency, as well as a shit tonne of chocolate.
I have heard A Little Life described as emotionally excoriating, utterly relentless, harrowing and traumatic, which, let’s be honest, are not usually the adjectives I look for in a novel. But it has also been described as life-changing, life-affirming, masterful and just plain mandatory for all lovers of literature.
Having only just finished the book about ten minutes ago, my thoughts and emotions are still in a bit of a jumble (and probably will be for a few weeks to be honest), but I think I agree with pretty much all of those descriptions. It’s definitely the most intense book I have ever read, and I finished it with a mixture of relief and sadness.
There are so many horrible acts, people and descriptions in this book, but surrounding these traumatic experiences are scenes of great beauty and poignance; it’s a book about love and friendship as much as it is about childhood abuse and trauma. In fact, I found the moments of friendship and family much more moving than the scenes of trauma – maybe because the trauma was so intense and so graphic that I found it hard to move past feelings of horror and shock.
I think my main criticism/issue/question about the book was whether it needed to be quite so hideous to get the point across. Just when you think this kid has had the worst childhood imaginable – when you can’t physically imagine anything worse – we discover something even more horrible has been inflicted on him, and not through any sort of vague allusions, but in heart-breaking detail. I’m not necessarily saying that she needed to tone it down or anything like that, I just felt there was so much detail, about all of the minutia of everyday life (and not so everyday life), that at times it took away from the true message, which I think was related to love and friendship and family.
There’s no doubt Yanagihara is an exceptional writer. Even as she was leaving me more shocked, appalled and disgusted than I’ve ever been, I never for a second considered putting the book down – I was completely captivated. Her portrayals of friendships are incredibly moving and she writes about life and its challenges with a great deal of poignance and clarity.
This is one of those books that I will never regret reading, I’ll be thinking about it for weeks, probably months, to come, I’ll recommend it to everyone I meet, but I will never, ever reread it.
I give it 4 out of 5 library holds (that I can now tackle…)