A Little Life – Hanya Yanagihara

This book is controversial I am aware of that and therefore I urge you to read all content warnings before reading the book. In addition, this review will touch on these difficult topics as well.  I want to start off with this (which also might be a bit controversial): I am tired of seeing the same talking points over and over again. People (people in books or people in real life) do not owe you ANYTHING. We aren’t promised great lovely lives, things sometimes do not get better. Sometimes life sucks and when you are down it gets worse. I am in awe of people saying that this story is unrealistic. What an absolute privilege (and I mean this in the kindest way) it must be to feel this way and to truly believe it. But the world we live in can be so cruel. Yes, some people really go through it all. Sometimes for some people, they do not see a way out. I want to always encourage you, to seek help. Reach out, there are people qualified that can help you. That will help you, that are obligated to help you. As a mental health professional myself I know we can be scary, that it can be daunting but I would not say this if I didn’t believe with every fiber of who I am. There is always help out there. The thing is we experience life differently, all of us do. An analogy I like is to see feelings as well. For some of us, the bottom is so far down we cannot see the end, for others, it’s right up to the surface. Yes for some hurt and pain are different than for others but it’s never okay to delegitimize someone’s feelings. So, yes if you are one of the lucky few you might not connect with this book, for others, it might be too hard to read (and that is valid). As I said proceed with caution. But let’s have a chat about it.


If you decide this book is not for you as it can be triggering I want you to know that you are strong for acknowledging this. Please do not feel bad, there is no reason to harm yourself for a book. If you struggle with (serious) mental health issues or you have in the past. If you struggle with themes such as child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, self-harm, self-inflicted wounds, drug use, infant loss/losing children, abuse within a religious setting, self-mutilation, car accidents, or suicide *, I strongly urge and advise you to NOT read this book.
* This list is not extensive

The book in short
When four classmates from a small Massachusetts college move to New York to make their way, they’re broke, adrift, and buoyed only by their friendship and ambition. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity.
Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
I got this information here

My thoughts
I read this book as myself, not as a professional and my review will be thus. My opinions and thoughts are fully my own. If you do struggle with mental health, seek help. There is help, it’s never too late. You are not alone.
With spoilers, as always. Making this one coherent story was so difficult, it won’t make sense if you have not read the book. At the very bottom, the last two paragraphs sum up my general feelings about the book

When reading a story you sometimes have to sit with it for a while, for me, this story was one of those. After finishing this book, I just sat there trying to process my thoughts. Reviewing for me is a way to work through my thoughts about a book and when it is done, it is done. I had typed up most of it but hadn’t made it a cohesive story (which in the end I failed to do). I then left it for a bit. The thought of coming back to it was difficult, I really encountered myself. I do feel this strong need and urge to tell you exactly what I thought about this story, which is why we are here today. When I started reading this book, it took me so long to really get into it. The author explains things in so many details which is lovely when you fully emerge in the story. It’s just difficult when you are not. I thought reading the first chapter or so with an audiobook would help me. I was playing the book and reading it simultaneously and this multi-sensory experience of sound and visual information was a lot but it helped me to keep going. Parts were so sad and difficult but I needed to finish, I needed to go on. Which sounds weird, you never have to finish a book that is too difficult but it wasn’t that. There was this fire that made me want to keep reading on. As I said I wanted to read the first two chapters on the audiobook but when I started I didn’t want to either read or listen to the book without the other. Thus, I ended up finishing it this way.

The story follows different points of view and all people read so incredibly differently. This is why it was a bit hard to get into because I got a bit confused about who I was following at the start. We meet Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude. We get to know quite a lot about the first three yet about Jude the information we learn is much more a trickling down of information. In the same way that friends want to know it all, so do I. I want to see every thought and learn every nightmare. Understand the hurt and the pain. The nerve pain that Jude experiences is written so well that you cannot help but ask yourself ‘What on earth happened to this boy?’. Nerve pain is so difficult to describe correctly, I have read about nerve pain before but it never comes close to the real experience. The fact that you just deal, the way that you just have to sit or lay there and wait for it to be over. It feels so authentic to me. The story at the start is sad but not in a way that makes it unmanageable. You learn about the struggles of people in their early twenties, where some have gone through more than others. It’s difficult but not painful,  the thing is while reading I felt this dread. This heavy feeling that is not touchable. Like a whisper where you know that when you hear it clearly you wish you had not. While reading I took a lot of breaks, every hour of reading I took a break. The writing is beautiful and haunting, but you sometimes need breaks and that is totally okay. The effect this book has can only be described as such. When I normally say something makes me cry I shed a few tears, or I am crying full on but in the same way, we laugh because of a book. Quick to come, quick to pass it does not linger. With this book, I was sobbing, full-on gasping for air ugly crying. Honestly, that sort of crying was I suppose good for me, I do admit I have been feeling very much positive since reading this book. In a way getting to the very bottom of your well makes you appreciate the times when you do not quite go there. 

We meet our characters when they have just finished college they have jobs but they are at the brink of the start of their lives there have been some horrible things and real legit trauma but there is hope, the world is their oyster and to me, as someone who is in that age bracket, it makes it so interesting. We journey with them through their life and with time that hope you feel right after University leaves us. The thing is, I love this book but I feel that I shouldn’t say that. As it will give people the urge to maybe pick it up when they see it somewhere and I do not ever want to do that. Should you read it? No. But am I glad I did? Yes. It is so incredibly difficult to explain that fully.

There is this inherent sadness in Jude’s life and it’s just so hard to experience this with him. The physical pain he experiences reminds him so much of all the things he desperately wants to forget. It just hurts. Sometimes when you read a book you can put up a wall and not let it touch you so much but this book crashed through all the walls I have ever put up. This is why I think if you suffer from mental health issues you shouldn’t read this book. For me, it crashed into me and there was no way of stopping it. I never cried this way over a book. You want to know what happened but you also don’t want to know. The characters are so vivid, I do not understand why but all of it is so vivid which made me unable to hold up this front. The timeline does read clearly which helps us keep track of the story. As we skip back between Jude’s history and our original timeline. We learn that terrible things happened to Jude as a young boy and he had no way to protect himself and no one that looked out for him. It’s just this little boy that cannot escape it and he does not know how to deal with the situation he is in. With the anger that he feels. He has never learned how to cope with his feelings. He cannot protect himself as he is so small. He has all these questions and feelings. You just feel that he needs to be protected. My heart broke over and over again for this little boy who deserved so much better. His life especially his childhood was/ is terrible and it all feels so unfair. The scars we accumulate in our lifetime stay with us even if we do not want them there. Even later in life Jude never learned how to cope and I just so wish that he did. Everyone deals with reading differently from others but I could never have read this without crying my eyes out. I hate child abuse so much and the way the author describes the feelings of this traumatized little boy is so heartbreaking (I do not mean in any way that one likes child abuse if they do not cry). His behavioural issues stem from the hopelessness he feels and the way he is treated. The questions he has about life. It’s so heartbreaking to think people struggle like this.

It is the small things that can have such a big impact on others. Everyone loves Jude so much but he does not allow them to love him in the way they clearly do. It’s the small things though the way Malcolm makes Jude’s apartment (without Jude knowing it then) wheelchair accessible. Because then no change had to occur when Jude would end up in a wheelchair, it could all stay the same. Everyone wants to love him so deeply but he does not allow them to. Willem’s life is arguably great as far as after college goes. His childhood is obviously also nothing to write home about. I think this is also why Jude and Willem have such a connection from the get-go. Broken souls find each other. On that note, they are soulmates and it’s such a beautiful way it comes to you. Where you know, before they do. The drug addiction of JB is interesting. We learn why he stopped hanging out with his friends. How he hurt them when they tried to help. How he is just simply so jealous but he doesn’t understand why because there is absolutely nothing to be jealous about. How he can never understand their pain or suffering because he has had a wonderful life. Yes, Malcolm is rich but he has felt rejected. JB never had the only thing that was not working for him at that time was his work and the fact that he had to grow up. JB is such an interesting character that I only now after the fact have come to appreciate. In the end, JB had to live. JB is the guy who had it all, that never knew true trauma. He does now, he understands now and through his art, his friends can live on. He had to live just as the others that had to die.  I think well I hope that he can be happy. 

Throughout the story, we come to understand that the weight of all the hurt and all the trauma is too much for Jude, in a way I do not even think he wants to die necessarily. He just wants it to end. When Willem left though, there was nothing that kept him on this earth, no one was that light in the deep darkness. No matter how much everyone else loved him, it was this reminder that everyone eventually leaves. Even if it is in no way their fault for leaving. Jude never had the opportunity to explore who he is, what he likes, and what he wants out of life. He doesn’t know anything about himself. Does he like boys? Or does he like girls? What sort of boys or what sort of girls? What did he want to do with life? What hobbies would he have chosen if he had grown up in a healthy environment? There are so many questions he was never allowed to get an answer to. This book is a perfect depiction that the awfulness Jude experiences is so vast and so much that it almost feels as if it can’t be true. It pushes to the very edge and every limit of what you as a reader can comprehend and imagine. Feeling this does not mean it isn’t true. Online I have seen a lot of people fall into this trap. But just because you cannot wrap your mind around the fact that people abuse children that abused people get into abusive relationships that some scars never heal, and that if you have never learned to cope properly you still cannot as an adult. Just because you are fortunate enough to believe this is so far removed from reality does not mean it is. I think there are people out there in this world whose experience is exactly like this, who have seen evil up close and personal. And I am not trying to be mean when I say this but I am sorry what have you all been thinking happens in child trafficking? I genuinely do not understand how you can understand there is child abuse and not see that all of this is a consequence of that happening to Jude. Trauma doesn’t just sort itself out, trauma like this does not go away on its own and frankly, he should have been in therapy long before going to college. Here are the facts of the book Jude has been physically, emotionally, and sexually abused since he was a baby. He has been trafficked as a child and that has consequences for his life.  Then he gets into an abusive relationship because he has no self-worth and does not know how to love. He doesn’t know what he is worth because of the abuse and trauma and then he falls in love with a guy that dies, then after all of this, he kills himself. The trauma is big and it’s vast but it all stems from the same thing, childhood trauma, and very poor coping. The walking, the lesions of his legs, the fact that he cannot be intimate (cuddling, wearing short sleeves, telling secrets), the fact that he doesn’t know if he likes boys or girls, the fact that he cannot have sex even if he wanted to. All of that stems from the abuse he suffered. What do you think happens with people who are sex trafficked? Jude escaped child trafficking the thing that happens to trafficked children is they either remain trafficked into adulthood, they get out which is a small minority of people or they die either by complications of the abuse, their own hand, or someone else’s hand. If someone does escape and they get help, they can live fully and fulfilling happy lives and they deserve this. But Jude didn’t get any help. I do not really understand why people out there say it’s too much. You are so fortunate to really truly believe up until this point in your life that things like this do not happen you have been sadly mistaken, we should be fair and honest, and sometimes for some people, it feels like the only way out. There is so much that can be done and there are other options. It’s such a raw and honest perspective about how life sometimes (Sadly I might add) is. Life sucks sometimes, Jude has especially in the happy years, done the best he could, and then something else happens because for some it always does. And what did we expect from Jude when Willem died? I know I didn’t think he would hold on as long as he did. I applauded him for those 2 years. 

About the abusive relationship, Jude was in. Jude meets a guy he gets into a relationship with and Caleb simply sucks. He is a horrible horrible human. But it’s not out of the ordinary for victims of abuse to get into a relationship with another abuser because abusers can smell abuse victims from a mile away (and this is never the fault of the person who was abused). It just feels like Jude can never catch a break. He doesn’t understand that he deserves so much better he is always waiting for the next shoe to drop for someone to tell him he is worthless and Caleb does. It’s so painful because no one deserves any of this. The way Jude expects this sort of treatment. There were no more tears to cry, it was a sort of numbness I had only experienced once before. The type of numbness where you feel so deeply sad and hurt that there is nothing because you cannot feel the pain that deep. That feeling is so scary. I think we can have a greater discussion about life in general but it is important to know especially if you never go to therapy and no one in life ever explicitly tells you it was not your fault. In a case such as Jude, he was too young to make any sort of decision on anything. Jude felt that it was his choice and thus his fault but it wasn’t because he was just a baby (not a literal one but you get the point). If you are that young you cannot under any circumstances make decisions on your own and thus there is no responsibility for you within that decision. This is a burden you should not have to carry. 

Back to Jude and Willem, they are quite clearly soulmates but not in the love way we normally see.  I do not think that Jude wants nor that can (psychically and emotionally) have a relationship in his fullness but they are soulmates and I think they both know. I loved it when they started dating, but you know from the start something horrible will happen eventually. We know this because truly Jude is one of those people that can never not once catch a break. But for this little bit of life,  for this small part of the timeline they are happy and so am I. It was written down beautifully, I cannot explain it in the proper way. Just know that it’s a story most wonderfully told. They are in love with each other not explicitly or only because of their gender or sexuality it’s just because they are meant for each other. I want to talk about Jude’s friends in general. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I have read that some find Jude’s friends inadequate. I think they did great for the fact that they know this deeply scarred individual who does not want any help. So they love him as much as he allows, and they take care of him the best that they can. They are not healthcare professionals, Jude needs one desperately but his friends need to be his friends and they are doing the best they can sadly sometimes what you can do is not enough. They struggle with wanting to do more but not knowing how to do more, and how to do better. These mental health struggles are so severe and so difficult no layman could help him in the way he has to have help, nor does he want them to. Which is important to take note of.  He never wants to deal, he tells his friends to not push him and they know the friendship will end. They meet him where he is. A layman cannot help someone that does not to be helped even as a professional that is so difficult he needs to be inpatient. Not every professional can nor wants to work inpatient. Some people like Jude need to be forced to get help for him to understand that he needs the help. But sometimes for some people sadly that help, the help that can change it all, the help that finally strikes the chord. The help that changes everything. Sometimes, unfortunately for some people that doesn’t come or comes much too late. We cannot and should not be allowed to set that on our friend’s feet. If you have a friend or family member who has sadly stepped out of life, I need you to understand this. I am going to tell you this and I want you to understand: It was not your fault. The goal of his friends at some point turns into them trying to keep him alive. They talk about suicide by asking questions which is actually a really good method. 

In the end, Jude does not get better and that is the point. It’s so upsetting in the end. Child abuse is awful and it obviously leaves scars on top of other awful things happening at first, you want him to get better we want him to live a fulfilling life but then even worse things happen and at some point, you understand so fully why he does what he does. I do not like suicide (I think no one does) I do not want people to die. Even when people in books have to die or when it makes sense for them to die. It always hurts, I never want them to it’s always sad. For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel that way. And that is the power of this book for me. This is why I say it’s not for everyone I am unsure if everyone can see the book for what it is meant to do. It’s not an idolization of dying or of suicide or cutting but you pull from a book what you find in it. Therefore if you struggle with such things I do not know what sort of message you’ll get out of the pages and in that case, you ought to leave it in the store. This book was deeply troubling but beautifully written. This book really is going to be a classic but not everyone should read the book. There is no joy in suffering, there is no such thing as suffering for the greater good. It’s not that deep it’s a book and books can be skipped. The book is very timeless there are no definitive dates you know the timeline and their ages but it feels as if it could happen today or 50 years ago and it all would still make sense. Some books work for some people and some books work for others. This is why the books you buy and the books you like are so deeply personal. This book was so sad in a way I never quite felt this way due to a book.   

As I alluded to in the introduction people in books, people in general don’t owe us (the reader, their friend) anything. They don’t owe us a happy ending, they do not have to be okay with their past. They don’t have to go to therapy if they don’t want to. They can be fucking shit friends. They can come from a privileged background, they can be an asshole. They are allowed to not like the fact that they are not able to walk properly. They are allowed to not like nor accept the label ‘disabled’. They are allowed the fact that they don’t want to be, that someone did that to them. They are allowed these feelings, these behaviours. I think a lot of people have expectations of how stories should unfold. How people should feel, how they should behave. No one owes you anything. It’s not true to life, some people are just shitty people other people are just sad. All of this is difficult for us as humans but people are allowed to want to die. People are allowed to be very much unhappy, even though it would be better for them if they weren’t. We can get them help, we can urge them to seek help, to stick with it. We can be their friend, we can be a listening ear. We can try our best but they don’t owe us anything. People in books especially do not owe you a happy ending in a way you see fit. It’s supposed to make you sad and make you feel all the feels and that it’s too much. Some people live a life that is too much. We owe it to them, to people who have experienced things like this or any trauma for that matter to not say ‘This doesn’t happen, this is not real’. Because imagine for one second someone said that about you, about your life. 

I cannot begin to explain the profound effect of a little life. The hardest thing about this whole book is the following; In the end, I was rooting for him to end it, and to be successful and that broke me. I have never not once in my life felt that way. This book made my mind go to a place where I didn’t know it could be. I wanted him to die. I never wanted anyone to die in a book before (nor in real life but that is beyond the point). I cannot start to explain why and how this all came to pass. I do not believe people are beyond hope or beyond help but for Jude I just… A lot of people said that they didn’t know who to recommend it to and I feel that in my bones as well. It’s a beautiful book but no I do not recommend it at all. The decision if you want to read it, is one you make on your own. It’s not a decision you take lightly. The book feels so honest. Terrible things happen to good people. Jude’s life especially early on is the most terrible thing that can happen to a person but things like that do happen and I think a lot of people are not ready for that conversation. Through reading the book, it opens the gates for our own demons and we have to be honest about that. If you are not ready to confront that side of yourself you should not read this book. It’s ridiculous for Jude to blame himself but somehow somewhere we can relate. We blame ourselves for things we have no blame for. I want to end this review with this thought. No matter the hurt and the pain a book might cause you, unlike your own trauma you can put the book away, set the thing on fire, and never look back.

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