Longlisted for this year’s Man Booker Prize, ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara has been talked about as one of the novels of the year, if not the decade. On Wednesday night, Yanagihara appeared at Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road in London in conversation with Cathy Rentzenbrink, the Associate Editor of The Bookseller, to talk about her astonishing second novel.
Following her debut ‘The People in the Trees’, Yanagihara wrote ‘A Little Life’ in about eighteen months while she was working full time. The novel opens with the lives of four friends of various backgrounds living in New York after graduating from college in Massachusetts: JB, Willem, Malcolm and Jude. JB is an artist, Willem is an actor, Malcolm is an architect and Jude is a lawyer. Yanagihara talked about lulling the reader into a false sense of security with the opening section reading like a generic post-college novel set in New York. However, it becomes clear at the end of the first part that the focus of the book is really about Jude who has experienced extreme physical and psychological trauma in his past.
I read The Faithful Couple by A. D. Miller earlier this year which also deals with male friendship and while that book contained some neat observations, ‘A Little Life’ tackles the theme on a whole new level. For me, the genius of the book lies in the way Yanagihara makes so many aspects of Jude’s character so ambiguous yet still manages to tell the reader so much about him – JB nicknames Jude the Postman, describing him as “post-sexual, post-racial, post-identity, post-past”. Yanagihara said she wanted to focus on a character “who wouldn’t get better” and spoke of men having a more restricted “emotional toolkit” compared to women in terms of how they are openly able to express themselves with each other.
Yanagihara describes the style of the book as being like a fairytale as there are no historical time markers – it is particularly notable that there are no references to events like 9/11 in a contemporary novel set mostly in New York. Although the setting is important in that Yanagihara wanted to write about the kind of people who come to New York seeking to fulfil their ambitions after university, I think it is the fairytale aspect which has struck a chord with so many readers, as the reader only has these four characters to “hold on to”. Dwelling on some of the other less plausible aspects of the book, such as the characters’ incredible material success so early in their careers, would be missing the point somewhat.
There was also a discussion about the differences between the covers of the US edition (above) and the UK edition. I personally prefer the cover on the UK edition which I think is a better fit for Yanagihara’s intentions of lulling the reader into a false sense of security. However, the audience were more or less divided over the issue. Yanagihara also had two editors on either side of the Atlantic who had very different comments about the book – one worried more than the other about what the reader would be able to tolerate in terms of its gruelling content. However, Yanagihara didn’t want to alter the spirit of the book saying that it’s impossible to guess how much a reader can take. She wrote the last section in just two days and said she couldn’t imagine it ending in any other way.
As well as the work of Hilary Mantel and John Banville, Yanagihara named The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro as one of her favourite books, saying that Ishiguro is able to take the same theme – the oppression of memory – and produce something completely different in every novel he writes. She isn’t working on anything new at the moment but mentioned that she had thought about writing a story in the future set in a shipyard or ship.
Many people have said they read ‘A Little Life’ very quickly. I’ve had the opposite experience in that it has taken me close to two weeks to finish but the experience has still been very intense. There were times when I put it down and thought I might not be able to pick it up again because of the intensity, and then when I started reading again, I wondered why I ever put it down. ‘A Little Life’ is an extraordinary book and like pretty much everyone else who has read it, I would be amazed – no, appalled – if it didn’t win this year’s Man Booker Prize.