Tuesday 15 September 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life will be my only Man Booker long-listed book to be completed before/around/during the announcement of the shortlist on Tuesday.

However, I have been avidly following the (wo)man booker shadow reading group here. It was thanks to their reviews that I made A Little Life my priority read out of the list.

There is a lot of love for this book out there in blogger land...and I can now see why.

But I'm not so sure it's worthy of winning the Booker.

A while back I read Amanda Foreman (one of the judges from 2012) comments about the judging process which made me realise that the judges read all the books in the longlist five times each to get to this point:
There are monthly meetings usually lasting somewhere between four and five hours, until the list of 146 titles is whittled down to sixty, then forty, then twenty, and finally twelve. After each stage of winnowing, the surviving books are re-read and re-evaluated.

From this I can only assume that the shortlisted books are read a total of six times by each judge before the winner is announced. That's quite a reading accomplishment!

There aren't many books in my life that I have read through six times, but I now try to keep this in mind when I read a Booker long or short listed book. How would this book hold up to several repeat readings?

And that's where A Little Life falls down for me.

The story is compelling, gut-wrenching and an emotional tour de force. Like a train wreck it is hard to look away. But do I want to reread it?

Will I gain any extra insight or any different perspectives from another reading? Does this story contain layers that will only be revealed with more or deeper readings?

I'm not sure about that.

In her interview for the Man Booker website, Yanagihara said:
I wanted everything -- the horror, the love, the distress, the compassion, the fortune, the misfortune -- to feel heightened, to be pushed beyond what's expected or even what's wise; I wanted it to live at the far ends of the spectrums of human behaviour and emotions. It should feel like a binge, somewhat, an experience that demands your attention and surrender: the small and large moments that punctuate any human life distilled into a concentrate.

I'm glad I read this interview before I started the book as it allowed me to accept the extreme elements in the story for what they were - for what the author intended them to be. I also read somewhere (I can't remember where) that she also thought of her story as being more of a fairy tale.

With that in mind, the sordid, brutal, relentless abuse that Jude experienced as a child is made a little more bearable and the redemptive powers of love and friendship made a little more acceptable.

Fairy tales often explore the idea of opposites and Yanagihara also uses that device in A Little Life.
Fragility and strength; determination and despair; vulnerability and vigilance; hopefulness and helplessness; love and hate; trust and wariness.

The real power in this story though - the binge factor - lies in Jude's inner voice.

We all have times when we doubt ourselves, when that little voice in head tells us we're not good enough, not pretty enough, not worthy or not lovable. But most of us eventually learn that this voice does not serve us well. That this voice is based on our fears and insecurities and other people's opinions.

Eventually we learn to let it go as best we can.

And that's what we wish so strongly for Jude.
We empathise, we sympathise, we know why his inner voice is saying what it does. We can also see his faulty thinking and his impaired logic.
We wish his inner voice quiet.

Yanagihara has written a powerful, moving, relentless tale about the best and worst of life.

Will that be enough to get it onto the Man Booker shortlist later on today?

For those who love the book and want more information from the source, check out Hanya's Instagram page for the book @alittlelifebook.
She provides insights into the story making process, cover choices, her inspiration for Jude's character etc. It's fascinating.


  1. This was an all time favorite read and yes, a painful read. It certainly seems like the author achieve her goal "I wanted everything -- the horror, the love, the distress, the compassion, the fortune, the misfortune -- to feel heightened, to be pushed beyond what's expected or even what's wise; I wanted it to live at the far ends of the spectrums of human behaviour and emotions. ....."

  2. Anonymous15/9/15

    I have read nothing but good reviews for this book, and yet I still feel somewhat hesitant to read it. I usually don't shy away from brutal books, but the fact that everyone comments on the immense abuse stops me from picking it up. It was interesting to read your thoughts on the book, and I'm interested to see how the shadow readers' shortlist will compare to the official one.

  3. I imagine you were thrilled to see this make the shortlist.

    1. Curiously, yes and no Louise.

      It was an incredible read, an emotional obsessive compulsive binge of a book, but it is flawed. And I am very curious to know how it stood up to the repeat reads required of the Booker judges - perhaps I have missed something after all.
      The judges selected it for "its lasting emotional" impact, which is fine and very pertinent, I just think the winner should have a little more to it than that though.

      I checked the Man Booker criteria for judging the books and found that the main criteria each year is to decide which book is "the best novel in the opinion of the judges." Which now explains to me why each year is so very different.

      The criteria also says 'The aim was to increase the reading of quality fiction and to attract “the intelligent general audience”.'

      With this in mind, A Little Life could very easily take out the big Prize.

  4. What a wonderful review and post. I'm working my way up to reading this novel, which sounds brutal. But I'm also curious about a couple of other titles on the Booker shortlist. Do you know anything about Satin Island or The Year of the Runaways? cheers.

    1. I only know what I've read on the reviews from the lovely folk at (wo)man booker shadow group and from the author interviews at the man Booker website (links for both above).
      A lot of the positive vibe seems to be building for the Seven Killings book. The customers at work are preferring The Fisherman so far.


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