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The Best Book I'll Never Recommend

You want triggers? A Little Life has them all

By Catherine KenwellPublished 2 years ago 4 min read
The Best Book I'll Never Recommend
Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Summer reading—it’s something I look forward to all year. Longer days means more daylight hours, which translates to more time to enjoy reading ‘al fresco’, perhaps with a glass of wine or an after-dinner cuppa. I’m not a fan of ‘light’ fiction or romance, but I attempt to keep my warm-weather reading list a little less ‘dark’ than usual.

This year, I selected four books:

Consider This: Moments in My Writing Life After Which Everything Was Different, by Chuck Palahniuk

The Hunger, by Alma Katsu

The Strangers, by Katherena Vermette

and A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

For some reason, I began with the heftiest of the lot. At just over 800 pages, A Little Life is a heavy read. And heavy does not begin to explain the impact of this devastating, lyrical, 2015 Man-Booker short-listed novel. I didn’t know much about it other than what I read on the back of it, but I’m usually a fan of Man Booker finalists so I thought I’d give it a whirl.

A story encompassing the decades-long friendship of four male college friends? I’ll bite. Not my usual. One of the friends, the primary character, living with the impact of horrible child abuse? OK…I can handle that. Love, grief, real-life horror? Sure, go ahead, try me.

Going in, I realize I underestimated everything about this book.

A side note, before I dig in:

Generally, I’m not a fan of trigger warnings…as a grown-up horror author living with PTSD and C-PTSD, I find trigger warnings rather complicated. Trigger warnings themselves can be triggering, and it’s impossible to comprehend what will trigger some and not others. Me, I’d rather have someone just stop reading if they hit something that triggers them, rather than traumatizing them right up front by mentioning ‘all the bad things’. But that’s just my opinion.

But holy moly, I’m calling out triggers in A Little Life. I mean, for a start, we’re looking at child sexual abuse, self-harm, suicide, emotional abuse, betrayal, abandonment, pedophilia, chronic pain, homophobia, disability, eating disorders…have I missed anything?

There are entire wikis and countless pages and groups dedicated to the trigger warnings associated with this book.

And yes, contrary to my usual stance, I will say that it’s crucial to understand beforehand that A Little Life is an extremely difficult read and that as far as triggers go, there’s likely ‘something for everyone’ within its pages. Consider this a warning. It’s brutal.

Usually I’d say, stop reading if you’re offended or triggered or traumatized. Just stop. It’s not worth the grief. Just admit it’s not for you and move on.

But A Little Life is so much more than its depictions of trauma and its detailed descriptions of abuse.

Let me say this: A Little Life is one of the most profoundly lyrical and impactful books I’ve read in years. The cast of characters—primarily Jude and Willem, and more peripherally Malcolm, JB, Harold and Julia—is unforgettable. It’s quite unfathomable how Yanagihara inhabits each of these unique humans with depth and dignity, despite—or perhaps due to—their shortcomings. How these characters intersect over the course of their lives, how their stories diverge, and how they live with and without each other is intimately expressed.

By nature, I’m not an 800-page-novel reader. I’m a short-story writer and editor. When I’ve been intrigued enough to read an extra-long bestseller, I’m usually left thinking how the story could have been shortened and improved by eliminating 300 pages of junk.

I’ll admit, there were chapters in this book when I thought I couldn’t keep reading. I felt sick to my stomach, and reminders of my own trauma and history of self-harm bubbled to the surface. For two consecutive nights, I dreamt of Jude’s ‘childhood’, and I woke up in an agitated sweat. It was horrible. The depictions of pedophilia were, for me, particularly difficult to digest, and the fear of abandonment is palpable throughout the story.

Jude, in particular—certainly his history and predilection to self-harm—could have been written as a pitiable character; instead, we’re left wanting to understand even more about him. The interplay of light and dark between Willem and Jude is fascinating. Ultimately, A Little Life is about love and its limitations, about life and life-long grief.

At 800-plus pages, I thought for sure I’d skip and skim sections of A Little Life. Just the opposite. I absorbed and pondered over every word, imagining character interactions and even staging the action in my head. It left me weeping and smiling, horrified and blessed with characters I’ll keep close to my heart for a very long time.

I know I said A Little Life is the best book I’d never recommend; that’s not entirely true. I can think of one or two reader friends who might be interested in tackling it, but it’s certainly not for the faint of heart or stomach. It will continue to haunt me as few books do. Worth the read? Absolutely. But with any luck I’ve discouraged those who can’t make it past the brutality to the true beauty of this tragic saga.

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About the Creator

Catherine Kenwell

I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.

I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.

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Comments (1)

  • Kendall Defoe 2 years ago

    Well, I am intrigued...and scared. I have seen the book and had a thought or three about reading it. Not sure if I want 800 pages of that right now. A very revealing review!

Catherine KenwellWritten by Catherine Kenwell

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