“A Little Life”: A Review


Vivianna DeNittis, Herald Reporter


Millennials. A term dreaded by adults over the age of 30, and a term used to describe the people in the younger generation. In high school English classes across the nation, teens are taught about the literary voices of past generations, but the voice of the millennials has yet to be identified. Hanya Yanagihara, the author of “A Little Life,” could be the voice of this generation, because of her literary ability to create the world that this generation lives and suffers in. She is more than able to capture the essence of millennial life; she captures the fears and the desires of this generation. She entrances her readers with the stories’ characters and their lives, so that they cannot help but love and sympathize for the characters, if not connect with them.

Hanya’s plot effectively creates conflict and tension within her incredibly round and relatable characters, so that her readers cannot help but devour until the end of her story. She writes about four men, who were college roommates, living in the midst of New York City. JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude all support each other and maneuver the hardships of millennial life. The story mostly follows Jude and his emotionally gut-wrenching story. The readers quickly learn that Jude has a past that haunts him like a creature wanting to eat him from the inside out. The past makes him feel unworthy of love and care, so he lives in a life of self harm. Jude finds it impossible to share the weight of his past with others, as he feels he would being putting the weight onto their shoulders. A pertinent figure in his life urged Jude not to let his silence about his past become a habit, because it will become harder and harder for him to share. The story follows Jude’s silence, and how it affects his relationships with the loved ones in his life. Hanya effectively creates her own style in her writing to portray Jude’s life long journey through silence.

Hanya’s style uses long, lingering, descriptive sentences, along with many clauses to create beautiful imagery in her reader’s minds, much like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s romantic style in the Scarlet Letter. She does not show her readers the world that her characters live in; she immerses them into the life and struggles that her characters endure by giving readers sentences chalked full of detail and imagery. Hanya is able capture the small moments in the lives of the four men, much like when JB photographs:

“Jude wearing a bright navy sweater that JB could never figure out belonged to him or Willem, as both of them wore it so much, and Phaedra was wearing a wool dress the shade of port, and she was leaning her head toward his, and the dark of her hair made his look lighter, and the nubbly teal of the sofa beneath them made them both appear shining and jewel-like, their colors just-licked and glorious, their skin delicious.” 

In a single, drawn out, detailed sentence, the reader learns about a single moment that JB witnesses in his friend’s life. They see that Jude does not own his own clothing, proved when he said that“Willem let him borrow his” sweaters. The readers feel the intimate moment Jude is sharing with the woman, the glorious glow they are radiating, and the richness of color surrounding the scene.

While Hanya writes about small joys, she knows how to create tension within her writing by making the reader uneasy with the sentence structure. A paragraph- or rather a paragraph sized sentence- about “a confrontation with JB at a cafe near JB’s apartment, during which JB had proven maddeningly incapable of apologizing: instead, he talked and talked…” builds up different clauses that never get concluded. The reader feels a need to find the end of a thought, yet is met with another clause followed by yet another comma.

Hanya builds the tension within the sentence, so that her readers can bear witness to the tension from the confrontation. She creates uncomfortable images in things that would seem to be beautiful, like the “jars of honey, in which the porous combs floated like fetuses suspended in formaldehyde” (36). She makes the honey sickeningly sweet in a single, unsettling simile.

Hanya piles imagery into sentences like the description of Willem and JB’s apartment that is “so dense with bodies that they could open all the windows to the night air and still not dispel the fog of heat and smoke that would inevitably accumulate” during their New Year’s party. The people, described as nothing more than sweaty bodies, feels like a swarm that traps the reader in the small, hot, almost sweltering apartment. The effects of the party’s oppressing atmosphere follows Willem to the bedroom where “the window was cracked open, and the heavy air made Willem dream of spring, and the trees afuzz with yellow flowers, and a flock of blackbirds, their wings lacquered as if with oil, gliding soundlessly across a sea-colored sky.” While the dream seems to be a peaceful scene of beautiful flowers and birds flying in an expansive sky, the stark contrast of the oily, slick blackbirds, and yellow fuzz, much like Jude’s face “bruising yellow,” foreshadows the pain that Jude endures the in the following pages.

Hanya shows Jude’s agony with imagery that seems to inflict its own pain that differs from the actual injury. When Jude seeks for Willem for help after cutting himself too deeply, “his lips had gone a strange color, a not-color, although maybe that was the streetlights, which slapped and slid across his face.” His wound “had grown a mouth and was vomiting blood from it, and with such avidity that it was forming little frothy bubbles that popped and spat as if in excitement.” The streetlights are slapping across his face, making his face not only change color, but appear to grimace from injury. His wound is vomiting blood, as if it has become its own creature that is writhing in its own pain, different from the distress he is already experiencing.

Though Jude experiences excruciating pain, Willem finds beauty in the “constant, hummingbird-flutter of his eyelids and the way his hand was curled into a fist so tight that Willem could see the ocean-green threads of his veins jumping under the back of his hand.” The imagery that Hanya uses is incredibly beautiful, yet it contrasts the pain that Jude is feeling. She brilliantly uses a style consisting of long sentences, full of imagery to describe the way her characters experience the world.

Never before has this generation seen a book that so brilliantly captures the life of a man that stands for the millennial’s worst fears. It leaves readers gasping for air between their sobs from this breathtaking, gut-wrenching novel. A Little Life will become the novel of this literary era, and become a classic along beside other classics, such as Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. Hanya Yanagihara cleverly creates her own literary style made by imagery and lengthy sentences to create an epic saga that follows four different friends through their difficult lives. She creates a meaning behind pain and how it bonds different relationships. This novel is a must-read, as it will live on forever through  its beautifully written, soul touching relationship with each reader. A Little Life creates living, breathing characters whose big stories will not be silenced.