A Little Life focuses on a group of four friends who met at college and, as young men, move to New York to pursue their chosen careers:
- Willem – an actor
- JB – an artist
- Malcolm – an architect
- Jude – a lawyer
Of the four, it is Jude that is at the centre of the novel. Intensely private, Jude’s traumatic childhood is gradually revealed, and the reader begins to understand how his past has scarred him, both mentally and physically, and the impact that this has upon his adult life and how he interacts with the people around him.
The novel follows the four friends over the years as they mature and become successful in their chosen fields. It shows how their friendship develops over time, and how the others come to understand more about Jude, who has revealed so little about himself to those around him.
This is not a novel for the faint of heart. There are multiple scenes of child abuse, rape and self-harming that are presented to the reader, often in graphic detail. And when you think that it can’t get any worse, it does. Here is a character that has been through so much that it seems to be almost never ending. And therein lies the problem for me – I became almost immune to it. There was so much of it that at times it seemed to border on sensationalism.
The other problem I had with the novel was that the characters are extremely polarised – they seem to be either the most wonderful people in the world, or the absolute worst – there were very few that displayed any of the shades of grey that come between these two extremes. For me, only JB ventured into this middle ground, and even that was fuelled an addiction rather than an inherent character flaw.
This may sound like I didn’t enjoy A Little Life, which isn’t the case. I liked it, but I didn’t love it. It’s an intriguing story that kept me engaged for it’s 700+ pages, always wanting to know what was going to happen next. It takes some difficult subject matter and weaves it into a tale that should be bleak, and yet somehow isn’t. This is a story that is predominantly about friendship and love, in all it’s various forms, and it’s overriding message is, surprisingly, one of hope and kindness.