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Inside the front cover is a map of the street in which the fictional character Jude lives. It is clearly a child's drawing and the straight(ish - no ruler) lines of the buildings suggest a strong desire to create an ordered, logical world. Interestingly, this is repeated on the back cover, perhaps suggesting that this childish desire persisted or was never resolved throughout Jude's life. This is understandable since the novel opens with the suicide of Jude's mother, who leaves a note explaining that she has gone 'in search of adam'. Jude does not know who Adam is or why her mother has done this, but she crawls into bed with her, letting her mother's sick pool in her own hair, and stays there until her father returns home ten hours later.
This is just the beginning of Jude's trials; the novel begins in 1980 and covers the years in a staccato narrative similar to diary entries as Jude records what seems to be the entirety of her sad history. The child's perspective remains clear throughout: a careful attention to small details extolled in simple sentences. Her lack of control over events is emphasised by the way in which she recounts her experiences as if she is a passive observer. When she is forced to interact with others the consequences are chilling.
From the opening page the writing shocks, due to its content, style and formatting. Jude's personal tale of horrific child abuse, neglect and suffering exerts a strange hold over you because, although it is told graphically, it is told very simply, from a believable perspective. As the story continued, the barrage of negative events became somewhat unbelievable, but Jude's reactions never did. This enabled me to keep reading through some distressing events.
Smailes finds a range of ways to play with language to help us experience the world from Jude's perspective: repetition, rhyme, lists and colours. Although the use of lists is in keeping with the character's understandable need to document her world in a futile attempt to control it, (hence her ferocious reaction when one neighbour dares to buy a new car,) their prevalence did become frustrating at times and seemed to simply take up page space. Perhaps more detail would have helped these lists to create images rather than result in a faster reading time.
Smailes also plays with grammar, in particular by reducing her sentences into fragments. Initially frustrating. This reduced my enjoyment. But. It did slow my reading. Then. Allowed me to appreciate the power of the events. On Jude. Overall, I think it was an effective technique, perhaps suggesting how Jude takes small steps in an apparently hostile and careless world, but it continued to cause me irritation until at least half way through the novel.
Ultimately, the feeling I was left with was one of frustration: why did no one LISTEN to Jude? Without revealing the story, there are people who should listen and should be able to help her, but they fail. Perhaps what makes this, ultimately, such an uncomfortable story is not the descriptions of abuse, but the sense that Jude's history was inevitable. Not because she couldn't have overcome the initial traumatic suicide of her mother, but because she was surrounded by people obsessed with their own miseries and made triumphant by other peoples' failures, it became inevitable. Jude's final choice seems to suggest that we are all, ultimately, dependant on other people.
However, the powerful ending is diluted by a strange 'Afterthoughts' section in which Smailes seems to argue with her own creation, raising questions about creativity, reality and her own motivations. Perhaps Smailes was afraid to simply let her creation literally speak for itself?
Overall the novel is a departure from the mainstream that needs to be read with an open mind, a strong stomach and an ability to ignore minor irritations.