A Little Life is 720 pages long and when I first picked it up, I felt slightly overwhelmed by the sheer size of the novel. How will I be able to get through this mammoth book? Funnily enough, when I started it, I got so engrossed into the book that in a matter of few days, I was able to get through it. By the end, I was emotionally shaken up, which I was not expecting at all. There was just something about one of the characters that got me hard. It’s been a long time since I felt something so strong for a character in a fiction novel. This is a book that is not easy to read- in fact, when one of the character goes into narrating the details of his past, that is what forced me to confront the evil side of humanity.
A Little Life is a hard book to review. I don’t think I can do justice to such a beautiful yet sombre novel. Yeah, you read that right, this book doesn’t have a happy ending. In the New York Times article, the writer said, “one of the things [I] wanted to do with this book was create a protagonist who never got better… [for him] to begin healthy (or appear so) and end sick – both the main character and the plot itself.”
The book is split up into seven parts, and each part concerns with a segment of the lives of four friends: Malcom, Willem, JB and Jude. We follow their lives from their college days through to their middle age. Throughout the novel, we also get glimpses into the backstories of each of the four friends.
To make it easier, here are the four characters:
a. Malcolm: an architect, bi-racial and lives with his parents
b. Willem: an aspiring actor, an orphan, Jude’s closest friend
c. JB: a painter, or Haitian descent
d. Jude: an aspiring lawyer, walks with a limp, introverted and as others find out, habitually self harms.
As the novel progresses, with all four them traversing through their adult lives post college, the story begins to focus more and more on Jude. The writer brings in several issues that these four friends encounter: rich vs poor, white vs blacks, privilege vs despair, loneliness vs aloneness, sadness vs happiness, single life vs family life (the novel shows that some people choose to live a single life, and beautifully normalizes this), success vs failure (loved the part where one character says that success makes people boring), and so many other life issues.
This is where the book becomes so important because the themes are so universal to everyone. We all want to be something when we leave college. We all go through a period of adulting. We all want that acceptance and validating. We all want to find love and settle down. We all want to be heard. This is the massive power of the novel in that it reaches to everyone. Guaranteed, there will be a part in the novel where you will think, “Oh, I know what feels like!”
All these four friends aspire to be something. They work their ways towards their goals; some succeed, others don’t. But they are always there for each other, except Jude.
Here are some of the main themes that stood out for me:
a. Childhood Trauma and Abuse: Jude, as we find out, had endured sexual, physical and psychological abuse in his early years. He carries this trauma with him into his adult life. He doesn’t talk about it and in the process begins to harm himself as that brings him relief. We also find out why he limps and how that affects his interpersonal relationships. He does seek therapy but he doesn’t seem to be making any progress because his own view of himself limits him from achieving anything.
b. Pain, Self-harm: A large part of the book deals with Jude’s issues. His habitual act of self harming lands him in trouble several times. He doesn’t seem to want to address this issue. But it’s interesting to see how his repressed emotions and trauma plays out into his adult life. Unresolved issues can manifest in horrible ways, which includes self-harm.
c. Male friendships: It’s very rare to come across a novel that focuses solely on male friendships. We do have several woman characters come and go in some of these four friends, but the writer chooses to stay tightly focused on these four only. While some may call it bromance, others explore their sexualities. We also see how male friends can be there for each other, can become emotional, can be an amazing support system. As men, they are generally poor in communicating to one another, but as we see in this novel, Jude’s friends tell him to talk to them. Communicating between male friends can go a long way.
Reading A Little Life is an emotional experience. It felt like to me by the end that I know all these four friends. If this book were labelled as non-fiction, I would have wholeheartedly believed these were real people. There are some parts of the book that is triggering, especially when it comes to description of abuse. The writer did say that she was asked to tone down. the descriptions, but she stuck to her guns and didn’t remove anything.
The ending is what got me all choked up. There is an emotionally charged moment between Jude and his guardian uncle Harold. I won’t get into it, but in a single line that Jude utters, my heart leapt out, and I was taken aback. I didn’t see that coming, and it got me all shook up on the inside.
One of the reviewer said that this novel is “dark and traumatic” and is the “perfect coming of age novel of male friendships in the age of anxiety.” I totally agree with this review. This book is as real as it gets. It gets as dark as it gets. Issues like self-harm, chronic pain, failure are all part of life, as much as recovery, relief and success is. There is hope, love and empathy.
It’s incredible that the writer is an American woman (who grew up in Hawaii) who has managed to get us into the mindset of these four diverse men. It’s a huge testament to her skills and capabilities to whip up a novel that is realistic and sombre, yet ultimately uplifting and hopeful.
When I finished the novel, apart from being all emotional and shaken up, I realised how incredibly important empathy is. As men, we tend to not show empathy- it is a challenge and we will go as far showing sympathy. We tend to be scared of becoming emotional, or confronting anything that may come up for us in our moment of empathy. But empathy is what will make us better human beings, and in the process help others who are struggling with their lives.