READ THIS BOOK. It will destroy you, but read it anyway!
If I had to pick a single word to describe this book I’m not sure I could. Heartbreaking…. Yes. Astonishing…. Yes. Devastating… Yes. Brilliant, Complex, Disturbing, Extraordinary, Unforgettable, Profound, Moving, Touching, Heartfelt, Compelling, Agonising, Beautiful, Hypnotic, Revelatory, Perfection…. Yes. It is all those things. It is all of those things and something extra. Something indefinable and unnameable.
It is the story of four friends that venture to New York after college. But really it is the story of Jude St Francis. He is the centre of gravity. He is the pivot point that all the others branch out from. But at the same time, every other character in the book is more than a side character. They are more than a supporting cast.
I can’t go into detail about Jude without spoiling it for those yet to discover this revelatory work, so I will try to keep it simple… As the layers of Jude are peeled back to the marrow and we discover all that his life has been, each layer is another heartbreak, each betrayal another moment of disbelief and horror. To have a childhood so mired by abuses in so many guises…. To have one after another of negative and blindingly brutal encounters….. My soul wept for him. It is as though every male was a representation of the most evil and base personalities possible. How can one person encounter so much vileness? How can there have been no kind men that did not seek to use or abuse? How can he have never encountered any women in this time? If anyone needed some nurturing and affection it was Jude. How can one survive so much? I wept for him, even knowing he is not real. I wept because out there in the world there are many Judes with a story like this that are real.
This book shows the complete depravity that this world can offer. But, while it is infused with a sense of hopelessness, it is also flooded with moments of hope and sheer tenacity. It is a story of friendship, but also a story of love. Albeit an unconventional kind of love. Part of me wonders whether Judes issues when it came to intimate encounters with the person he loved may have been different if he was able to be in control? If he was the one topping, if the act was solely in his charge, would he have responded differently? He was always the one being used, the one the act was being thrust upon, and even when consenting, he was still submitting to something being done TO him. To live a life never knowing pleasure seems so sad. Even in Judes happier moments there is a veil of sadness and a sense of loneliness.
I love that each character in the book is fully fleshed. To the point that by the end you feel as though you know them all. Like they are all part of your inner circle. Each one has their own layers of sorrow, and their own moments of joy. Each has their own identity. I personally struggled to warm to JB, and Malcom and Richard both seemed less interesting to me.
The relationship between each of the characters is complex, but the most multifaceted is that between Willem and Jude (for me at least). It is, at its heart, a beautiful love story. I just really want to go give Jude a hug or 100. And Willem is just completely lovable.
Harold is one of my favourite characters. I find the struggle that they all share in regards to Judes method of release substantial. It really makes you question what you would do in that situation. A physical pain can help alleviate and deflect an emotional one. When considering his past in full by the end, can you blame him? Would you consider it mental illness or just the coping mechanism of someone stronger than you thought human endurance could be?
Towards the end you are thrown one big curveball. I spent most of the book emotionally preparing myself to say goodbye to one particular character only to lose an entirely different character before the final act (actually more than one, but to be honest the other didn’t throw me nearly as much). It left me wanting to go and quietly sob in a corner somewhere. I don’t know if I felt worse for the person we lost or the one left behind. I think both moved me greatly. The anguish pours off the pages. I love the moment with Harold and Julia where Jude realises he is being treated like a child and he is acting like one and, for the first time, he is actually being allowed to be the child he never could be. I found that profoundly moving. And I am so happy with his decision regarding Loehmann. I was so angry at Jude for most of the book for not making even the slightest effort in that direction, so to see some sense of resolution there was good – better late than never Jude, but how I wished it helped. I still feel a deep sadness for Jude.
Even though it is Harrowing, even though it is soul-bruising, it is a book that must be read. This is a book that seeps into the pores of your soul a little at a time so that you don’t notice it until it is in every cell of you. It is a heartrending and astonishingly beautiful work of genius. Transformative. A masterpiece.