If you need further proof that we’re haunted by the ghosts of our past, you’ll certainly find it in A Little Life. My feelings about this book are very mixed. I was torn between thinking it was tragically beautiful and thinking it was tragedy porn. I decided it is tragedy porn but it’s well written tragedy porn with literary merit.
Jude Fawley of Jude the Obscure is regarded as one of the most tragic characters in literature. Well, when it comes to tragedy, Jude Fawley has met his match in Jude St. Francis, the main character in this novel. This Jude was abandoned in a dumpster as a baby. Throughout his entire childhood and adolescence he is horrifically physically, emotionally and sexually abused by many people, several of them people he trusted to care for him. When he grows up he attends a prestigious college, becomes a successful lawyer and finds a group of good friends. A law school professor and his wife legally adopt him as their own child (this professor lost his own son to a devastating disease when he was a little kid. Pretty much everyone in this book experiences great tragedy in their lives.)
Yet Jude remains a tortured soul who is left with many physical and emotional scars as a result of the abuse he endured. The man who deliberately ran over him with his car left him partially crippled and his condition worsens over time. Throughout his life he endures traumatic flashbacks to his past. He suffers from low self esteem and has relationship issues with his friends, his lovers, his adoptive parents, his co-workers and his doctors. He has trouble opening up to people, believing that he’s deserving of their love and trusting that they’re not going to abandon him. To cope with all of this he regularly engages in self mutilation.
The tragic events don’t end with his childhood either. The poor guy just can’t catch a break in life. As you may know from my previous book reviews, I’m pretty morbid in my tastes in literature. Not only do I have a high tolerance for tragedy in literature, I have an appreciation and a craving for it. Yet even I have my limits and this book pushed me past them. I can only endure so many graphic descriptions of childhood sexual abuse and self mutilation before it becomes overwhelming and I start feeling nauseated.
I think the harsh realities of life should be depicted in literature and I certainly don’t want them sugar coated in order to avoid making the reader uncomfortable. However there’s a difference between tragedy that is plausible and endemic to the story, and tragedy that is artificially manufactured to create melodrama. There’s a difference between tragedy for the sake of illustrating a point or a truth and tragedy just for the sake of tragedy. Too often it felt like this book fell in to the latter categories.
Yet overall I did like A Little Life. It was well written and it was emotionally gripping. It provided a lot of good insights, reflections and food for thought especially on subjects such as the nature of trauma, grief and friendship. I could feel the pain of the characters to the point that it became my own pain. Jude is such a tragic, vulnerable character, one that generates a lot of sympathy and compassion. Sometimes you just want to reach through the pages and hug him, to take away his pain, to convince him that he’s a good, valuable person who’s worthy of love and happiness.
Of course as the reader you are powerless to do that. Unfortunately the characters in the book who love him and try desperately to help him are also powerless to do that. There’s this notion that love is all you need, that love is always enough, that love can overcome anything. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. Sometimes the victims of trauma will struggle with and be devastated by their trauma for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the loved ones of the trauma victim will struggle with and be devastated by the pain of desperately wanting to save someone who cannot be saved.
There’s also a tendency to want to sort people who have suffered severe abuse and trauma in to two separate categories, two distinct dichotomies: those who were able to overcome their demons and achieve success and those who succumbed to their demons and failed at life. As Jude proves, it isn’t always that black and white. One person can fall in to both categories. Jude is very successful in some areas of life but struggles greatly in other areas as a result of his past. He is both a victim and a survivor.
Usually when a character commits suicide, it is at least somewhat surprising to the reader. I was not the least bit surprised by Jude’s suicide. I would have been surprised if he hadn’t committed suicide. When I read about it rather than being shocked by something I didn’t see coming, I sarcastically said to myself “Oh darn, and here I was thinking they were all going to live happily ever after.”
As saddened as I was by Jude’s suicide. I couldn’t help but consider it a miracle that he lasted as long as he did and I couldn’t help but feel glad that he had finally been relieved of his suffering.