I have a bit of an odd relationship with the Booker Prize – looking over the list of winners (and shortlisted titles) since its inception in 1969 I have only read five of the winners and maybe a dozen other shortlisted books. And most curiously of all it seems I have never read more than one book on any shortlist – this year is no different (so far) as the only book I have read so far is Yanagihara’s A Little Life. If the bookies are to be believed, however, this year I have chosen wisely as A Little Life at 6/4 is a runaway favourite – I have also read the most substantial looking of the titles. Who knows, I may find time to read the Tom McCarthy and Chigozie Obioma before 13th October…
A Little Life was never going to be an easy read: the story of four men who meet at University and remain close through their adult lives involves child abuse, self-harm, disability and horrific injuries. It is, however, a book I am hugely glad I read because the characters are so wonderfully drawn. Jude is, understandably, the focus of the novel – it is his early life which is revealed as the story unfolds – and the other characters seem to revolve around him. But these others – architect Malcolm with his privileged background and low self-esteem, JB, the self-centred artist who we want to love despite his bitchiness and Willem whose bleak childhood doesn’t prevent him becoming an acclaimed actor – are developed throughout the book. We also have a large cast of others – Jude’s adoptive parents, his doctor and work colleagues and assorted artists (including two Henry Youngs…) – who are all allowed to grow and to become important to the reader.
One of the most interesting things for me about this novel is that certain issues which are seen as of over-powering importance in reality – race and sexuality in particular – are almost treated as being relatively unimportant. Malcolm and JB are both black, African-American and Haitian respectively, but they have much more privileged backgrounds than Willem and Jude. Willem is white, descended from Scandinavian immigrants, and from a tenant farming family and Jude is of unknown ethnic descent. But, on the whole, these issues are not of concern to the four friends – maybe because they become, as adults, the kind of relatively wealthy, successful and well-known people who don’t have to worry so much about ethnicity. Sexuality is also a fairly fluid concept within the book which I found quite refreshing. Some characters are gay, some are straight, some move between the two and one, at least, would rather not have to deal with sex at all and, in the end, it is not seen as their defining characteristic. As I said, refreshing to not be considered as the sum of your sexual parts (and what you do with them…)
I did really love this book but for so much of it I was angry. Jude has had an appalling early life – gradually revealed over the course of the book – and although he becomes a successful and well-respected lawyer he seems to be beaten back by life at every turn. And his childhood has almost programmed him into believing that everything that happens to him is his fault, that he deserves punishment, degradation and hate. I’m not just angry that he feels like this but I was livid when I thought of how many people in the world are made to feel this way. I don’t, to my knowledge, have friends who have suffered abuse at these levels but at so many points I was reminded of many individuals (no names, they know who they are) who are struggling every day with issues of self-harm, depression and disability. I hope that people reading this novel will, as well as hearing an emotionally exhausting story, be encouraged to be a little kinder to others.