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Book 99: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Book 99: A Little Life.
Author: Hanya Yanagihara , 2015.
Genre: Literary Fiction. Sexual Violence. GLBT. Disturbing.
Other Details: ebook. ARC. 734 pages.

When four graduates 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cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their centre of gravity.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.
- synopsis from UK publisher's website.

My thanks to the publisher who responded to my request via NetGallery in exchange for an honest review.

In the end I found I had mixed feelings about this novel. Without doubt it was powerful and highly engaging and I felt drawn into the lives of the characters finding it very hard to put down. The harrowing story of Jude as it was revealed was deeply shocking. However, I was unsure whether it has the literary quality I usually look for in a novel short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. Near the end I realised that it reminded me of the novels of writers such as Sidney Sheldon and Jackie Collins, which were very popular and charted the lives of highly successful wealthy people whose lives are blighted by tragedy. Addictive reading without a doubt though is it literature or soap opera? I remain uncertain.

On completing the novel I questioned how likely it was that all four room mates would have been so successful and whether given how damaged Jude was whether it was realistic that he functioned so well as a litigator.

I also had some issues with time in terms of uncertainly about when the novel was set. This is never stated though as the narrative covers over three decades in the men's lives and with laptops mentioned early on when they were still living in their first apartment suggests it opens in the 1990s or later. However, that would mean it ends some time in the near future.

I feel the novel would have been stronger if it had that component of being rooted in time as well as place. Of course, that would have meant more research to get those details spot on but this lack of a temporal framework especially given they are living in New York City seemed strange. For example, there is no mention at all of the events of September 2001, which is very unlikely.

I am not the only one to have noticed this. The Guardian's review stated: "the novel is stridently ahistorical. Despite spanning some 60 years, 'A Little Life' is set in a perpetual almost-now, where the characters have email and mobile phones, but where 9/11 doesn’t seem to have happened and the only politics that are allowed to intrude into the lives of Jude and his friends are personal politics."

This was another novel that generated a lively discussion in our Man Booker Shadowing Readers' Group. The amount of disturbing content was a key issue and certainly potential readers do need to be aware that this could be triggering.
Tags: drama, glbt, mental health, sexual violence
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