Hanya Yanagihara, the author of A Little Life (2015), was born n Los Angeles in 1974. Her father was a doctor from Hawaii. Her mother was born in South Korea. Yanagihara studied Liberal Arts at Smith College and worked as a travel journalist and editor of the Condé Nast Traveler magazine. A Little Life is her second novel, which took just 18 months to write. Neither Yanagihara, nor her agent expected it to be a success. A Little Life was shortlisted for Man Booker Prize in 2015 (and many other literary prizes). I am genuinely puzzled why it didn't scoop it. To me, it is a masterpiece. I haven't read anything quite like it in a while and I fear I never will. It's an outstanding novel with brilliantly drawn devastating characters, a compelling plot and a deliciously rich vocabulary. It's like yes, Nescafé would do in the time of need, but there is nothing like the deep aroma and complex flavour of properly roasted, ground and brewed coffee.
It's the characters that make A Little Life truly unputdownable. There is something almost mystical about a female author being able to carve, dissect and serve male psyche with such a clinical understanding of the subject matter. The central characters - Jude, Willem, JB, Malcolm and Harold - are vibrant, flawed and 100% authentic. Their virtues are obvious but it's their insecurities, fears and blemishes that draw in the readers. It's precisely why I devoured the 700-page volume so quickly.
The most interesting thing about the novel is that every person who has recommended it to me had described it differently. For my friend from Melbourne it was a novel about the New York art scene - inspiring, creative and competitive. Another friend described it as an ode to Boston and New York, cities he loves. My actor friend said that A Little Life was about love - an unhappy love story. Literary critics wrote about gay relations, social problems in America, New York bubble - you name it. It really is a multifaceted creation, like a savoury pastilla, dusted with icing sugar, which conceals dozens of thin layers and a punchy filling inside.
For me, A Little Life is about friendship. Just like Elena Ferrante, who unveiled every crease, every wrinkle about female friendship in her Neapolitan trilogy, Yanagihara succeeded in portraying male friendship. Personal ambitions, envy, jealousy, inability to open up and share tightly guarded secrets and fears have made it onto the pages of A Little Life. At some point I was screaming at my Kindle frustrated with the main characters as if they were people living and breathing, as if I could influence their lives. Even now I keep thinking about them, dearly familiar and yet intangible, floating somewhere between reality and fiction. The novel made me think deeply about my own friendships and their inevitable knots and tangles. It's reassuring that my own life lines have these to hold on to.
"Through insightful detail and her decade-by-decade examination of these people’s lives, Yanagihara has drawn a deeply realized character study that inspires as much as devastates. It’s a life, just like everyone else’s, but in Yanagihara’s hands, it’s also tender and large, affecting and transcendent; not a little life at all," writes Nicole Lee in her review of the book for Washington Post. The beauty of fiction is that it inspires and complements our own lives; it challenges and it soothes; it causes a storm but also provides a much needed perspective just when our own lives seem so completely overwhelming.