Hanya Yanagihara’s ‘A Little Life’ a book that will keep you up all night

The Man Booker favourite has written a blockbuster, but she’s not giving up the day job

Hanya Yanagihara: she has been hailed as an important new voice in American fiction following the release of her second book, A Little Life.

Hanya Yanagihara: she has been hailed as an important new voice in American fiction following the release of her second book, A Little Life.


It’s a hefty book, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a blockbuster that starts out as light-hearted tale of four male friends fresh out of college in Manhattan, and quickly turns into something a lot more dark and disturbing. More than 700 pages, but it flies by. It’s the kind of book that could keep you up all night, and make you late for work the next day because you stay in bed to read one more chapter, or miss your stop on the train.

The reviews have been ecstatic and emotional. With this her second book, Yanagihara is hailed as an important new voice in American fiction. Critics claim to have cried, sobbed even, and it’s true – parts of this book are so excruciating you might find yourself reading between parted fingers, or deep breaths. There are graphic, prolonged accounts of child rape and terrible scenes of adult self-harm that many have found just too much to bear. It’s hard to believe that Yanagihara, wrote it in her spare time, over an 18-month period, while working as an editor for a luxury travel magazine.

Paddy Power has it as a 5/2 favourite to win the Man Booker prize and I’d like to be a fly on the wall when the judges weigh such a sprawling story against The Green Road, Anne Enright’s brilliant, economically told tale of a family furiously bound together. There’s barely any family in A Little Life. Instead it’s friendship that binds the main characters: Jude St Francis, a brilliant young lawyer, Willem, whose epic good looks propel him towards the stage, JB, an artist who makes a career painting his friends and Malcolm, who makes tiny model houses, then graduates to the real thing.

They meet as teenagers in an unnamed Ivy League college and become inseparable, forever. Girlfriends come and go; they get jobs, then better jobs; they share apartments and eat cheap Korean food together; later it’s expensive sushi and larger apartments and immaculate suits and so on it goes, until they land in middle age and each one of them has made it big. Jude travels the furthest, from orphanage to partnership in a prestigious law firm, with enviable connections, fabulous possessions, and a deepening relationship with Willem, now a movie star. But another good friend is Andy, a doctor who sees Jude once a week to tend the wounds he inflicts on himself with his secret stash of razor blades.

Curious about the kind of person who can write paragraphs on end about flesh-cutting and who creates an unexpectedly beautiful landscape out of the texture of old scars, I’ve googled and found that as a child Yanagihara loved drawing bodies so much that her father, a medic, asked a pathologist friend to allow her to see bodies in their opened up state so that she could draw the innards too.

In person Yanagihara is charming, interested in all about her and eager to dive into a conversation about the intense and ultimately doomed friendships enjoyed by this unlikely quartet which spans over 50 years.

“With friends, there is nothing holding you together except the determination to keep going,” she muses. “You spend a lot of time grooming a friendship that’s extra-legal, extra-familial.

“In New York, more than any other major city, there is this idea of creating a different family. It doesn’t mean that people have had bad families, but you can upend the fundamental idea that the most important people are related to you by blood. At Thanksgiving, the one non-religious ceremony shared by all Americans, in New York when you look at a typical Thanksgiving, it’s not family, it’s the strays and adopted people that people sit down with. That is New York at its best.”

Yanagihara paints a vivid Manhattan landscape full of parties and gallery openings, with a vast network of people who leap off the page. You can feel the ambition and squirm at the put-downs. In between, are terrifying scenes in the monastery where Jude was abandoned as a baby. This is sinister enough but quickly the story moves beyond the religious institution as one of the brothers takes Jude on a road trip across America promising they will eventually set up home in a cabin in the woods. “I did not want it to be about the church,” says Yanagihara.

“Jude’s life was really about a child, who something goes wrong at the beginning and who thereafter carries a smell, and people pick up on that, and it happens to them all over again.” So, an exploration of a pain that will never go away and can never be analysed away? Yanagihara clearly has no time for analysis and there is a laughably ineffectual psychiatrist in the mix.

“I wanted to write a book about a point of damage that is too great to survive from. Americans think that life is a triumph but I think there are certain things that we can’t expect people to survive from.”

A Little Life is Yanagihara’s second novel. The first, The People in The Trees, took a dozen years to write and is the real-life story of an anthropologist accused of abuse. She has gone on record to say that she may not write another book, telling the Guardian: “I don’t have anything urgent to say.”

Meanwhile she has moved jobs and is now an editor at the New York Times style magazine T, where she laughingly describes herself as “the most middle-brow person in the office”.

Writing full-time is not for her, she says with refreshing certainty. “I don’t know how people who don’t have jobs do it.

“It is nice to have days in which every hour is accounted for. With writing, when you know what you are doing a job won’t stop you, you will find time to do it.

“There’s a sense of urgency there. That is really what you need. Lots of places teach you how to write, but you should not write simply because you can. ”