Literary Fiction

7 Harrowing Books Like A Little Life

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Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life was sold to me as “the most depressing book you’ll ever read.” The New Yorker labels it ‘dark and disturbing,’ and The Guardian called it both ‘traumatic’ and a tale of ‘relentless suffering.’ If you have read this seven-hundred-page epic, you’ll likely agree that it’s impossible to disprove any of these labels; the text is incredibly challenging in its depictions of abuse and suffering. Despite this, A Little Life is still one of my absolute favourite novels. Yanagihara’s construction of character is masterful, so much so that, as the reader, the relationships you form with each of the protagonists stick with you long after finishing the book. If you are looking for novels that will make you feel just as deeply as A Little Life did, these seven choices are for you. 

1. The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy’s 1997 masterpiece begins in 1969 Kerala with young twins Rahel and Esthappen armed with childhood innocence, and their complicated family. When their cousin, Sophie Mol, arrives from England with her mother, the lives of the family are irreparably and devastatingly changed. The God of Small Things explains how the twins’ lives, and those of the people around them, are destroyed by the ‘Love Laws’ which dictate who should be loved, and how. With this novel, Roy creates what can only be described as a brilliant narrative, and despite the underlying foreboding tone throughout, nothing prepares the reader for the anguish that awaits them at the story’s end. 

Few authors can so eloquently give their readers hope, heartbreak, wit, and magic as seamlessly as Yanagihara does, but Roy achieves these feelings in The God of Small Things

2. The House of Impossible Beauties, by Joseph Cassara

Set in 1980’s New York City, Cassara’s The House of Impossible Beauties introduces 17-year-old Angel in New York’s drag scene as she seeks escape from her traumatic past. When she begins a relationship with Hector, a beautiful and aspiring dancer, they create House of Xtravaganza together, the first-ever all-Latino house in the Harlem ball circuit. After losing Hector to AIDS-related complications, Angel is left alone in charge of the house. Enter Angel’s three recruits: Venus, a trans girl searching for a rich man; Daniel, a butch drag queen; and Juanito, a subdued boy with a talent for fashion design. 

Together, the Xtravaganzas navigate the realities of sex work, abuse, and addiction in ‘80s New York City. The four resilient protagonists are determined to control their own fates, even as Cassara speeds the story along to its tragic conclusion. The House of Impossible Beauties is a devastating novel which, like A Little Life, finds strength in its depiction of love and friendship. Brimming with heartfelt tenderness, brutally honest suffering, and lively New York scenes, this is a must read for fans of Yanagihara.

3. When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife, by Meena Kandasamy

When the unnamed narrator of Meena Kandasamy’s 2017 novel meets a well-known leftist university professor, she is quickly seduced by his passionate politics and poetry. After they marry, the professor tries to reduce her to his ideal, submissive woman. The controlling husband stops her from pursuing her previously successful career as a writer and academic, and the more she resists him, the more brutal his abuse becomes. Kandasamy explores the troubling relationship of love and trust with realities of intimate violence, and brilliantly explores conceptions of a women’s role in modern India. 

Kandasamy’s exploration of domestic abuse and her narrator’s journey—from the stripping of her autonomy to reclamation of her own voice—contains some of the most heartfelt and poetic prose I have ever read. Like A Little Life, this is not a pleasant read, but it is just as quickly devoured. Both texts are incredible, though challenging, discussions of the long lasting impact of trauma on the individual, and the sheer honesty of both will leave their readers more empathetic than before. 

4. The Heart’s Invisible Furies, by John Boyne

After getting pregnant out of wedlock, a teenage girl ostracised from her small Irish village entrusts her baby boy to a nun she hopes will find him a better life. The child, Cyril Avery, is adopted by a well-off couple from Dublin quick to tell him that he is not, and never will be, a real Avery. Thus, John Boyne takes us on a 70-year journey from 1940s rural India to the present day of one man in search of his identity. 

Through the eyes of one ordinary man, The Heart’s Invisible Furies covers LGBT rights, the IRA, terrorist bombings, AIDs, and the beginnings of the legalisation of gay marriage in Ireland. A Little Life has been termed by some as the next great gay novel, and while I have already sung my praises for Yanagihara’s character construction and capability of writing about the intensity of love and friendship, Boyne’s novel deals more concretely with gay themes. If you’re looking for a novel that is just as heartfelt, but perhaps more adept to discussions of LGBT+ issues, be sure to check out The Heart’s Invisible Furies. 

5. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is structured as a letter from the speaker, Little Dog, to his illiterate mother. As the letter progresses, it uncovers Little Dog’s family history, set mainly in Vietnam, and opens up his mother’s eyes to aspects of his life she had never known. The novel, which is Vuong’s debut from poetry into prose, is a compassionate and graceful depiction of familial love, as well as a frank discussion of race, class, and masculinity. 

A Little Life brought us into the world of Jude, a character whose trauma irreparably silenced his voice. In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong decimates this silence as Little Dog urgently demands to be heard. Both books ask us to think about the ways in which we can heal one another, and the ways in which we all strive to survive. Both Yanagihara and Vuong prove to be masters at describing raw emotion, so if you’re looking for your follow up to A Little Life, this book is for you. 

6. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is often considered her masterpiece, and remains a must-read today. Main character Sethe, an escaped slave in Ohio, is still haunted by her horrific memories of slavery 18 years later. At the same time, Sethe’s house is disturbed by the ghost of her baby, whose tombstone is engraved with one word: Beloved. Although Sethe works tirelessly to suppress her traumatic past, the arrival of a mysterious teenage girl who calls herself Beloved forces terrible secrets from the past to the forefront of Sethe’s present.  Through Sethe’s story, Morrison creates a powerful and important narrative which highlights the collective trauma of slavery in America. Although Beloved is not an easy read, fans of A Little Life are likely adept at dealing with challenging topics such as abuse and suffering. For those looking to educate themselves about the struggle of black people in America, this is a necessary book. 

7. Call me by Your Name, by André Aciman

Call Me by Your Name is a story of intense and sudden summer romance between a teenage boy named Elio and a guest at his parent’s Italian mansion named Oliver. Despite initial indifference put on as an act by both men, the unrelenting reality of their passion for each other strengthens Elio and Oliver’s connection. This connection culminates in a short-lived but life-changing relationship between the two, and they fear that the intimacy they shared is something they won’t find again. For those looking for queer representation, Call Me by Your Name speaks honestly about gay romance and the experience of falling in love for the first time. 

Call Me by Your Name is less like A Little Life in terms of concrete themes, but more in how Aciman and Yanagihara both expertly create narratives which deal frankly with the ways in which humans love one another. If you enjoyed A Little Life for its tender depiction of love and friendship but perhaps need a break from such difficult and graphic scenes, Call Me by Your Name will provide you with the same heart-wrenching emotions without the traumatic content.

About Author

Charlotte is a recent graduate in English from Durham University and a current Comparative Literature masters student at the University of Edinburgh. She enjoys reading contemporary fiction and some of her favourite authors are Kamila Shamsie, Toni Morrison, Bernadine Evaristo, Delia Owens, and Khaled Hosseini. In her spare time she enjoys cooking, boxing workouts, and being a devoted dog mother.

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