Sometimes a book comes a long which blindsides you. With characters who stay with you and breathe alongside you, and whose lives you lead whilst also living yours. A Little Life has those characters and is one of those books.
Frankly, I found it a hard start. It is massive (720 pages) which made the beginning a big commitment. . You might expect with a novel like this which presents itself as rather arty and dreamlike, that it would never get down to the nitty gritty, that any actual scenarios would be suggestions only and that you would be left to your own devices to figure out what actually happens, but that is not the case. In A Little Life, the true depravity and humanity of the human species is presented to you in full technicolour.
I make a point of not comparing the books I read to other books (on this blog anyway). I pointedly don’t read any reviews until I have written my piece, because otherwise I know that I would be influenced by all the people out there who have got far better ways of saying the same things as me, but I will say that this book reminded me of The Goldfinch. It has the complexity, the depth and the same dark flavour that the Goldfinch has. But it is a lot more visceral, less pretentious, and more graphic. The writing, although intricate and far reaching, is actually quite simplistic – it’s approachable and warm. The stories jump around quite a bit, from different times and places, but the author managed to do it in a way that wasn’t off putting or confusing. I always knew where I was and mostly who I was.
The four main characters are fascinating, flawed, charismatic individuals, but the book is mainly about Jude. He is so deeply scarred and damaged and yet so brilliant, loving and driven. I desperately wanted him to accept the help, give the love, feel the love, and yet I also understood how that was impossible for him. Even before his whole story is revealed I knew that certain limitations had been set for him and some he had set for himself. These limitations meant that he always viewed himself as if standing slightly left of centre, always observing and never fully participating. Some of the horrors of his life are deeply disturbing and often it’s a hard read for that reason. But equally, some of the people who he finds himself surrounded by restored my faith in humanity and enabled me to keep on reading.
This book gave me a much greater understanding of the issues surrounding self-harm. I felt like I had lived in New York City for a while, so detailed were the descriptions of the streets that were visited and lived on. I fell in love with Wilhelm and Jude, and I was slightly disgusted by JB. Poor Malcolm didn’t really get a look in, but I think that was the point.
What this book does is explore human nature in all its forms – it breaks it down and starts rebuilding it for you, bit by bit. By the time I finished reading it, I was more heartbroken and more in love with life than before, all at the same time. And that is why this book will stay with me for some time to come.
A completely brilliant read. Thank you.