When my friend Alice lent me her copy of A Little Life, I was going through a difficult time – spending my evenings drinking, crying a lot, drafting venomous emails and then deleting them. She handed it over with a warning: “It’s not the nicest read when you’re not in a great headspace.” I shrugged this comment off, but it transpired that reading this novel was a perverse act of masochism. I don’t cry over fictional works – with the exception of The Notebook, but that was due to being 17 and two bottles of wine deep with an emotional friend who just wanted to have a cry – but A Little Life made me weep. It’s true that I was already quite sad, but this is a book that’s also emotionally decimated many saner, sunnier people.
We live in a society that, via the safe haven of the internet, pushes a message of unbridled optimism; of living one’s best life, propagations of #GoodVibesOnly and Pinterest boards filled with inspirational quotes. We shouldn’t need a book to remind us that real life isn’t so rosy, but A Little Life still delivers a heavy wake-up call. I read one review that dubbed it “misery porn” and, frankly, there isn’t a better way to describe it. The concepts of good and bad karma are exactly that: just concepts. Life isn’t fair.
While one of the key takeaways of the book is that not everyone gets their happy ending, its most refreshing – if depressing – revelation is that not everyone wants one. Jude’s boundless self-loathing makes his painful, abusive relationships with others even more difficult to digest. You squirm, sigh, reach for the Kleenex.
Reading this book was utterly frustrating, and one of the few times where I wished reading weren’t such an insular act. I wanted to complain about the characters to everyone I knew. I wanted to push the pain onto others; to unburden myself of what felt like a heavy, dirty secret. I made many attempts to explain to people why the novel was affecting me so much, but they were all flimsy. This is the sort of work you can’t capture properly in a review, be it written in a newspaper or blurted out to friends in the pub. My advice: just read it, be annihilated by it, and think about it for the foreseeable.