Sometimes, when books are heavily hyped, we pick them up without really knowing what we’re letting ourselves in for, and often we find ourselves utterly invested but wishing someone had warned us quite how depressing they would be.
A Little Life is the embodiment of this – a Man Booker shortlist entry in 2015 and a critically-acclaimed second offering from American author Hanya Yanagihara, much of the rhetoric surrounding the novel has been of its literary beauty; its engaging characters; and its attentive analysis of generation Y.
The first few chapters set the scene, following four broke, newly-graduated friends and the characteristics of their friendship as they begin their lives in dilapidated buildings and low level jobs in Manhattan. At first it's an unobtrusive study of the group, observing their progression into unprecedented success — one goes on to be a Hollywood movie star; another a lead partner at a top law firm — and deep failures, with one of the friends developing a debilitating drug problem. The story then hones in on the enigmatic Jude St Francis, and quickly escalates to describe his relentless self-harm and the excruciating childhood experiences behind this.
Whilst the abuse suffered by this central figure is touched upon in reviews and commentaries, the severity of the subject matter – the painfully explicit details of his formative years and the slow, uncomfortable description of his psychological unravelling – has been somewhat masked by the author’s newfound celebrity status, with appearances on late night chat shows and talks of a Hollywood adaptation diverting attention from the novel’s harrowing narrative.
That isn’t to say the hype isn’t true. The novel is relentlessly engaging – all 720 pages of it – with characters you root for and a plot that effortlessly flits between past and present, 1st and 3rd person, joy and pain, keeping the reader constantly on their toes. But, frankly, the book should come with a warning label. Like a pack of cigarettes, A Little Life should let you know just how bad it’s going to be for you – how wincingly difficult much of its story is. The more invested you become, the more the tragic nature of these individuals’ lives sits with you well after its end.
Still, by no means should this book be avoided. Like its miserable predecessors, it’s the novel you’ll discuss over dinner parties, the story you’ll pick apart at brunch, the one you’ll forever identify as a personal favourite. But let this be your official warning – A Little Life is a damn depressing read.