A Little Life


I recently read this ENORMOUS beast of a book, and it was so punishing to read that I felt it deserved it’s own book review.

I’ll try to write a summary of my thoughts on this book without spoilers first, and will warn you when there might be spoilers in case you plan to read it sometime yourself…

I found it gripping, and frankly I have never been gripped by a book that was over 700 pages long before. It is a beautifully written but heartbreaking book. It is, in places, very difficult to read due to some of the tough subject matter, and at one point, I literally had to put it down and step away from it for over 2 weeks before I could bring myself to read on. I desperately wanted to know what happened, but also could tell what was going to happen, and how awful it was going to be, and needed some time to steel myself to read it.

I found the characters really well-developed and compelling, and found myself connecting with them and empathising with them more than I have with any fictional characters for a very long time.

It is a story of friendship, and how our friendships shift and change over the years.

It is a story of the ties that bind us, but also a story of deep, dark, awful things that are not easily forgotten and will haunt you for days.

It is a story about loving kindness, and tenderness, a story of the million little things we do for our loved ones, and the pain of loving someone so damaged that they don’t know how to love themselves.

I am extremely glad I have read it, but will probably never be able to read it again, and I will be reflecting on the story for quite a few weeks to come.

The things I really enjoyed about it:

  1. The non-linear narrative. Although the story broadly follows a group of people from their twenties into their fifties and sixties, it jumps around, dropping back into snippets of the past and their childhoods, and leaping forward unexpectedly, dropping hints of what is coming in the future. I really enjoyed the way the story threaded about in time, it worked extremely well and kept me guessing a lot of the way through
  2. The constant shift in narrative voice – this story is told by many of the central characters, revealing different perspectives as you go along, and while most of the time it is clear who is telling that part of the story, occasionally, there will be a sudden shift, and the voice in that chapter will be talking to “you” or about “he” and it takes a while to work out who is actually speaking, and therefore who the “you” or “he” is in that particular piece of narrative is referring to.
  3. There were some sections where the momentum builds so slowly, so painfully, that even though you know what is coming, you cannot bear it. And yet in spite of the sense of doom, the sense of foreboding, there were plenty of things that happened I didn’t see coming. This book was the perfect balance for me in that regard – some things I saw coming, and some things I didn’t , which I like in a book – it kept me guessing and occasionally threw a wild card in there I didn’t expect.

Things I was less keen on:

  1. Sometimes a character was mentioned early on, in passing, with reference to how they ended up, but we haven’t yet been introduced to that character or how they fit into the story. 300 pages later, when you realise who that person is, you’ve forgotten what was said about where they ended up, and while in a normal book I would happily flip back and re-read it, this book was too large, and the story too non-linear to do that. Which was annoying!

SPOILER ALERT!!!

Don’t read any further if you don’t want to know any details or want to read this book yourself!

The story centres on a man, Jude, and the people in his life, a close circle of friends whose lives orbit around him. Jude is handsome, brilliant, charming, enigmatic, and damaged. He suffered some terrible abuse as a child, a fact which is hinted early on, and slowly drip-fed into the plot, bit by bit, until gradually it builds up into a torrent of horror, and we start to learn more and more about Jude’s past as he grows into middle age and his life starts to fall apart. The slow build-up of the two storylines alongside each other is beautifully and carefully crafted.

His friends lives revolve around him, and are so deeply intertwined that over the years their fight to stop Jude from self-destructing embeds itself into the fabric of who they are. Their deep, unending love for him is reflected in a million little kindnesses, the little things they do to adjust their lives imperceptibly to make Jude’s life a little easier. At some points in the book, it is not the horror of Jude’s childhood trauma, but the tenderness displayed by his friends that brings the tears to your eyes.

There were times when I felt the abuse and the horror were too over the top, too extreme to be believable, and I couldn’t continue a willing suspension of disbelief, only to realise on reflection that in fact there are real people out there in the world who probably have suffered as much as this character, and that makes it even more heartbreaking. This book showed a deep insight into the psyche of an abused child, growing up into a damaged and broken adult who never got the help he really needed.

Jude is an incredibly fragile character, both strong and weak, proud and humble, a jumble of contradictions tangled up in a man trying to conceal his past from those around him. The walls that he builds around himself are impenetrable, and yet his friends spend their lives hurling themselves against them, trying to force him to let them in.

It’s an incredibly moving book, deeply emotional and very traumatic. At one point the dread of knowing what was coming, what had been building up for hundreds of pages was so excruciating that I had to stop reading and regroup for a couple of weeks before I could bring myself to keep reading. It was agony to keep going, but also deeply compelling, and that is the mark of a great book. I don’t know whether or not I would recommend it to anyone, as it’s very difficult to read, but was also a powerful saga, and I’m glad I read it.

One thought on “A Little Life

  1. Pingback: 2018 Book Challenge | Had we but world enough and time…

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