This review is likely going to contain mild spoilers, but primarily contains a number of content notes for both the review AND the book.
Content note: abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, self harm. The book also requires CN for suicidal ideation, suicide, child sexual abuse.
When I decided to read the books longlisted for the Bailey’s prize, I decided that I should probably start (having already read two) with the longest. At over 700 pages, A Little Life is nothing but little, and being the overachiever I am, I decided I would read it in a few days, though once I started it I ended up reading the majority in a single day. What I also didn’t quite expect was how much this book would unseat me.
A Little Life follows four friends from their time in college through their adulthoods; JB the artist, Malcolm the stoic architect, Willem the actor and Jude the lawyer. Quite quickly, the novel narrows its focus onto Jude and Willem, the real protagonists of the story. This in itself is a little disappointing as Malcolm becomes a serious yet caring background prop and JB’s peeking-through-the-window style longing serves mostly to remind us how much you should want to be a part of Willem and Jude’s inner pairing. Neither of those are a bad thing, but part of me did wish Malcolm was fleshed out more particularly, because otherwise he was just a little flat.
Ultimately, A Little Life is a story about the nature of trauma. As a child, Jude’s life is characterised by various forms of abuse received at the monastery, care home and other places he passes through before college. What happened to him appears to the reader in snippets and flashbacks, as well as through retellings to other significant characters such as Willem and Harold.
Traumatic events are so often discussed as just that – events, discrete in nature. That, however, is the exact opposite of the imprint trauma leaves on a life; trauma is continuous, it is insidious and it persists. Jude’s past lives on through his “episodes” – loosely described moments of pain that overcome him – mental and physical scarring, his unwillingness to be touched, his fear of sexual intimacy, and most heartbreakingly, his guilt and thorough belief that he is a harmful, terrible person.
In a key transitional period in his life, a careworker warns him to talk openly about his pain, lest it fester and take root, but after losing her to cancer, he turns inward. Instead of speaking, he turns to self harm, cutting with a razor – this persists throughout the book and is described in quite horrifyingly graphic and specific detail.
A section midway through the book deals specifically with domestic violence, and to echo a friend of mine @ArchedEyebrowBR, it was possibly one of the most difficult to read things ever. By reading about the pain inflicted on Jude by his first boyfriend, we are complicit. We stand by powerless as he is hurt, in the same way his family members and friends do. It is a harrowing experience. When I finished that section, I put the book down next to me and began to breathe again. I had to stop for a few minutes.
Yanighara writes about trauma with alarming accuracy. A survivor of sexual abuse myself, I saw my own emotions and reactions frequently in Jude’s own. His episodes remind me of my dissociative seizures, a condition with a direct link to sexual abuse – approximately 75% of people with dissociative seizures also have been sexually abused. Later that day I did have a seizure, of which I’m not totally willing to discount the book’s involvement in triggering (not that this will happen to everyone of course, but it’s an intense experience). His warped belief that he is dirty and awful is something I’ve sadly heard in many survivors in the throes of working through their abuses. She writes specifically about how sexual abuse effects people, and has clearly done a great deal of research into the lasting somatic changes.
While A Little Life does have a slight flavour of too much bad has happened to save him, it is a very important novel. It tells a lifetime of attempting to live through the pain, and I feel it also has some stiff warnings for those who refuse to investigate their traumas in psychotherapy. There are some arguably fanciful moments amidst the stark reality – the four friends all being the best of their careers is admittedly a bit silly, but quite necessary in such a stark story. Another friend of mine described it as repeated bad things happening to someone, but I see merit in this – the disadvantaged are routinely further beaten down; the vulnerable make easy targets and I think that is really one of the core messages of the novel.
I’ve left it a few days to reflect on whether I think this novel is good rather than just soul destroying and I’ve settled on yes, it is. It’s beautifully told, and the main characters that exist in Jude’s universe (Andy and Harold, as well as the aforementioned three) feel whole people. Their frustrations at being carers are accurate, their pain and desperate need to understand match your own feelings. Yanighara’s story of four friends is about being destroyed and destroying in turn, a dismantling you cannot look away from.
Thank you to Pan Macmillan’s friendly team for sending a copy over with a strict warning that it was going to destroy me – you weren’t kidding.
Why should it win?
A Little Life tells an important story of the imprints of trauma with dignity, respect and utter rawness that I have yet to see matched by any author. An epic by length, an epic emotional toll.