A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Foyles Bookshop Event

A Little Life Hanya YanagiharaLonglisted 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.

A Little Life event at Foyles (1)

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.

A Little Life US cover

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.

A Little Life signed copy

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36 Comments

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36 responses to “A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Foyles Bookshop Event

  1. Hello! I love reading, and your blog covers so many interesting books that I need to add to my to read list! I’ve nominated you for the Liebster Award! To learn more about this, go to https://milkidseducationconsulting.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/whome/
    Thanks so much!

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  2. I wish I had known about this event. I too, want A Little Life to win. I will be a bit astonished but absolutely delighted if it does.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lucky you! What a great book to hear the author speak about.

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  4. Fantastic!!!! I’ve seen folks post about this event on Twitter, thanks for the summary here. Love that autographed page. Oh, how awesome. Great, great book.

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  5. What a simply great event to attend and your review is absolutely brilliant. I now have the urge to drop everything else and just read this book. If only!! but am so looking forward to being able to pick it up and start it.

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  6. Tom Taylor

    Not to get off track, but another Man Booker winner, John Banville, is being neglected and should be talked about here, especially The Infinities.

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  7. It sounds like an intriguing book, and I’m curious to find out why it’s an intense read. 🙂

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  8. Sounds like a hard read, I’m not sure if I’ll go for it or not. But a good review and lovely to have a signed one!

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  9. Thank you for the review. Particularly interested in your discussion about having two editors with different viewpoints about appealing to their markets. I become skeptical when a book is considered the novel of the decade (or at least within the last 5 years). Too many books are hyped. In 2013 I was disappointed in the Booker winner, when two far superior books were bypassed. I read 2 long listed books this year, and of the two Lila was superior and a very good book. It is hard to compare novels and styles, but I am interested in reading “A Little Life” to see how it compares and merits all the accolades coming its way.

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  10. Thank you for the review. Particularly interested in your discussion about having two editors with different viewpoints about appealing to their markets. I become skeptical when a book is considered the novel of the decade (or at least within the last 5 years). Too many books are hyped. In 2013 I was disappointed in the Booker winner, when two far superior books were bypassed. I read 2 long listed books this year, and of the two Lila was superior and a very good book. It is hard to compare novels and styles, but I am interested in reading “A Little Life” to see how it compares and merits all the accolades coming its way.

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    • I would have been more wary too but I had heard fantastic things about A Little Life from book bloggers I trust. It’s definitely worth taking the plunge. I didn’t love The Luminaries either and much preferred A Tale for the Time Being which was shortlisted in 2013.

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  11. katedoublebooked

    It sounds like such a fascinating event. I think when you get so tied up in a book its hard to imagine what the author behind it will be like. I’m so glad to hear that you loved “A Little Life”. Have you read “The People in the Trees”?

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  12. The Cue Card

    Nice review. It sounds like it should win the Booker judging by your strong reaction to it. I’ll get to it.

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  14. I love your blog, you have encouraged me to start reading books again. l will like you to recommend some inspirational books to me.

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  15. I’m really looking forward to reading this!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I’m reading these reviews carefully as I’m only part way through ALL, but I was curious to see that you’d been to a talk with the author.

    I love the fairytale element and I also prefer the UK/Aust cover, but I have now reached the section of the book that explains the US cover. So I appreciate it more than I did.

    My only concern is that (very) occasionally I feel that some of the things that happen to Jude in particular are literary conveniences. Maybe a sign that my real life sensibility is struggling with the fairytale elements?

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    • Yes, as you say, it was clear to me too that some aspects are exaggerated or convenient for the purpose of maintaining the idea of it being a fairytale e.g. how financially stable all of the characters are. It’s definitely a very character-focused book though so it definitely helps to read it with that in mind.

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