Finalist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize
“J is a snarling, effervescent, and ambitious philosophical work of fiction that poses unsettling questions about our sense of history, and our self-satisfied orthodoxies. Jacobson’s triumph is to craft a novel that is poignant as well as troubling from the debris.” —Independent (UK)
Man Booker Prize–winner Howard Jacobson’s brilliant and profound new novel, J, “invites comparison with George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World” (Sunday Times, London). Set in a world where collective memory has vanished and the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited, J is a boldly inventive love story, both tender and terrifying.
Kevern Cohen doesn’t know why his father always drew two fingers across his lips when he said a word starting with a J. It wasn’t then, and isn’t now, the time or place to be asking questions. When the extravagantly beautiful Ailinn Solomons arrives in his village by a sea that laps no other shore, Kevern is instantly drawn to her. Although mistrustful by nature, the two become linked as if they were meant for each other. Together, they form a refuge from the commonplace brutality that is the legacy of a historic catastrophe shrouded in suspicion, denial, and apology, simply referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. To Ailinn’s guardian, Esme Nussbaum, Ailinn and Kevern are fragile shoots of hopefulness. As this unusual pair’s actions draw them into ever-increasing danger, Esme is determined to keep them together—whatever the cost.
In this stunning, evocative, and terribly heartbreaking work, where one couple’s love affair could have shattering consequences for the human race, Howard Jacobson gathers his prodigious gifts for the crowning achievement of a remarkable career.
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About the Author
An author of fiction and non-fiction, Jacobson's previous novels include Man Booker-winner The Finkler Question, Zoo Time, and Kalooki Nights. Hogarth will also publish his forthcoming retelling of The Merchant of Venice as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series. Jacobson is a columnist for The Independent and has worked as a professor and in television and radio broadcasting.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I finished reading J, by Howard Jacobson, on March 15, and it has taken me more than a month to find the words for this review. At the 13% mark on my Kindle, I was ready to cast the book aside (and I almost never let a book defeat me), but because I had committed to read and review it, I picked it up the next day to try again. Whether the initial fault was with me or with the book, I still can't decide, but suddenly I was engrossed. The Goodreads description of J compares it to the dystopian classics 1984 and Brave New World, but I think this analogy ignores J's nuanced approach. When I think of "dystopian" fiction, whether it be 1984 or The Hunger Games, I think of imaginary societies which are obviously "undesirable or frightening" (to use Wikipedia's definition) from the moment the reader is introduced to them. In contrast, the society in J, created in response to an event referred to "WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED", initially appears to be a successful utopia in which all citizens are truly equal, having even given up their names to prevent identification with a particular racial, religious, or ethnic group. It granted a universal amnesty, dispensing one and for all with invidious distinctions between the doers and the done-to. Time must close over the events, and there is no better way to ensure that than to bring everyone together retroactively. Now that we are one family, and cannot remember when we were anything else, there can be no question of a repetition of whatever happened, if it did, because there is no one left to do to again whatever was or wasn't done. The reader learns only gradually about the flaws in this plan, as the society discovers what happens when there is an "us" but no "them": "Only when we have a different state to strive against do we have reason to strive at all." This idea has disturbing implications not only for the society in J, but for our own, particularly in the context of race relations. Shortly after I finished J, I was reading Maria Popova's Brain Pickings blog post about Margaret Mead and James Baldwin's 1970 Rap on Race, during which Baldwin drove home the same point with which Jacobson wrestles in J: "It is a curious way to find your identity, labeling yourself by labeling all the things that you’re not." Does this apparently universal human process of "constructing identity by the deliberate exclusion of what we are not in order to carve out what we are" (to quote Popova's summary) mean that all civil rights movements are ultimately doomed to failure? What is so spectacular about Jacobson's achievement in J is that he forces the reader to confront this huge issue, not on a national or international scale, but within the confines of the relationship between one man and one woman. What ultimately happens to Kevern and Ailinn's love has haunted me for weeks. Highly recommended. I received a free copy of J through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
What was so secretive about a word that started with J that people put fingers across their lips when they said a word that started with J? Then Ailinn Solomons arrives in the village by a sea that laps no other shore. Ailinn and Kevern form a refuge from the commonplace brutality that is the legacy of a historic catastrophe shrouded in suspicion, denial, and apology, simply referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. To Ailinn’s guardian, Esme Nussbaum, Ailinn and Kevern are fragile shoots of hopefulness. As this unusual pair’s actions draw them into ever-increasing danger, Esme is determined to keep them together—whatever the cost. Although mistrustful by nature, the two become linked as if they were meant for each other. I didn’t understand this book too well and I couldn’t get into it like I wanted to. I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging For Books for this review.