I finished this book at the end of half term on a trip to Italy for a dear friend’s vow renewal ceremony. I was tavelling alone, without the family, and it was wonderful to be able to read the last quarter of the book in long sessions, which I think was a good way to approach it. Time alone also gave me the opportunity to reflect on the book’s content. And to take a breather after the emotional battering I felt it dealt me!
It is a tremendous book. A stunning achievement. It deserves every plaudit it has received and I cannot believe this did not win the Man Booker in 2015, or the Baileys Prize this Spring. I’ve yet to read the winners of both those competitions, but if they are better than this then I’m in for a treat.
The last time I enjoyed a book of this length this much was over 20 years ago when I read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy over 2 days during a lonely Christmas! At 720 pages it’s daunting, but it’s a book that rewards you handsomely for your patience. It’s a similar size to War and Peace, but it’s not an epic; it’s about a single individual and the effect he has on the people who love him.
It’s set in New York and the central character is Jude St Francis. We first meet him with his three close friends Willem, Malcolm, and JB, having one of their regular get-togethers. The four friends first met in college and have remained close. When we first meet them they are all quite young and at the start of their careers, all but one of them living in economically straitened circumstances, but they are all destined to be (very!) high achievers in their chosen fields – Willem becomes an A-list screen star, JB an acclaimed artist, Malcolm a highly successful architect and Jude a successful corporate lawyer. The fact that they are all so successful and wealthy doesn’t stop you empathising with the characters, and this fact is important to the story in other ways. Themes of success, failure, expectation and disappointment are threads running through the entire novel.
(Not exactly spoilers, but some background info in the remaining paragraphs!)
In Part One, we are given an outline of Jude’s present life, but only hints about his background. We know that he has difficulties with chronic pain and illness, and has certain disabilities that will deteriorate with age, that he self-harms and that his friends are extremely protective of him, though none of them knows much detail about his childhood. In the early part of the novel we also meet Harold, one of Jude’s early mentors who has grown to love him and who, with his wife, adopts Jude as an adult. Parenting, the lack of it, the challenges of it, and the nurturing of human beings more generally, both inside and outside of the parent-child relationship, are also strong themes in the novel. Jude doesn’t have biological parents but the love and care he receives from his friends, from Harold and Julia (Harold’s wife), and from his physician, Andy, are quite profound. And yet none can quite make up for the lack of parenting Jude received, or repair the damage that this caused, no matter how hard they try.
Early on in Part Two of the book, about a quarter of the way in, the reader is given more information about Jude’s early life in a monastery and his abuse at the hands of those charged with caring for him, facts which we have up to now only been able to guess at. The people around Jude, however, do not know this, and it gives the reader a very privileged perspective on the events of the book and Jude’s actions.
It is hard to know what else to tell you about this novel without giving too much away. (I hope I haven’t said too much already!) Events unfold brilliantly and the facts are delivered with such delicious skill that I wouldn’t want to deny any reader the thrill of that experience. That’s possibly why the blurbs and summaries don’t really tell you very much about the subject of the book. In parts it is unbearably bleak, even when it’s happy! At page 209, everyone is joyous at Jude’s adoption party, but with 500 pages still to go, the reader knows there is much more to come and it’s probably going to be difficult.
A warning: this book caused my children to go hungry – I was devouring page after page when I should have been cooking their dinner. It’s brutal, to the reader! It does not spare you. I spent large chunks of the book in tears, in public places, and it left me emotionally drained.
Possibly not one for your summer holidays, but it’s a must-read. You will be richer for it.