A Little Life makes a bold stand for friendship. That in a society that places limits on relationships ranking certain kinds higher than others, it professes that friendships can indeed define the dynamics of a person’s life. Through the experiences that bond four young men, set in a New York expertly absent of historic markers that give the novel any firm placement in time.
The four young men, classmates at a prestigious university are a diverse group who like most college friends came together with no pre-organized requirements for platonic companionship as we are often to do the older we get and the more our tastes finds kindred spirits. The first few chapters devote themselves to fleshing out the mundane details of real life logistics and friendships. It capably translates the anxieties of navigating life and all it demands from one person in competition with the rest of the world when it sometimes seemed everyone but oneself is getting ahead. There is the artist JB, Malcolm the son of rich parents, Wilhelm the aspiring actor from the countryside and enigmatic Jude whom the book eventually pulls focus unto.
From here on, through sustained increasing snippets of flashbacks we acquaint ourselves around the character of Jude and the novel shifts from an earthy to more melodramatic tones. Jude comes from a dark past whose effects have left permanent scars on his body and affected his ability to walk properly. His friends still exist but they play second fiddle in this painful unravelling of Jude’s past trauma.
Jude is a self-mutilator, an act he never ceases even when the book ends, a defiance to a world and people who insist on time fixing his wounds even as they get steadily worse. Over the decades the novel spans, Jude’s life ascends in fulfilment of all the markers of success. He finds friendship, a family, career success, companionship and love yet it asks, is it possible for a person to be so scarred they could never recover?
Jude who is described as carrying a face with no identifiable racial characteristics is found in a rubbish bin and adopted by abusive monks a pattern that sustains itself into most of his life. He escapes with one of the monks, Father Luke a man whose comes to influence the rest of Jude’s life in unavoidable ways and disturbing yet sentimental ways. It is he who teaches Jude to cut himself to numb the pain of Father Luke’s fake promises. It is Father Luke he believes when the former waits in the bathroom as Jude provides services to truckers. It is Father Luke who utters the gut-wrenching affirmation “you were made for this.” Father Luke who feeds, cares for, beats and sells Jude’s body.
It gambles with its readers too, sacrificing a relieving climax for more melodrama. It is packed with lovable supporting characters, beautifully human in their concern and actions towards Jude St Francis. A Little Life is bound to leave one in knots, because of how expertly, the author doles pleasure and anguish with equal intensity. The prose moves from clean to charged in its moments of emotional intensity. Easily it runs the risk of moving into incongruous territory but it is never once comical or unserious in its capacity for anguish. A real tearjerker.
Alithnayn is a diplomat in training currently moving around Europe. She writes mostly fiction and cultural criticism. She has been published by Brittle Paper, Afreada, The Nollywood Review,Olisatv, The Naked Convos and has an upcoming story in The Kalahari Review. She was a finalist for this year’s The Writer Competition and a participant in the 2015 Farafina Trust Workshop.
She contributes to www.artbaseafrica.com
Facebook: Alithnayn Abdulkareem