Review: J by Howard Jacobson

by Vanathi Parthasarathi on October 6, 2014

J by Howard Jacobson

Author: Howard Jacobson
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Year: 2014
ISBN: 9780224102056
Rating: ★★★★☆
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J is a love story set in the future, cacotopian period of oppression and commonplace brutality, which is recovering from a catastrophe, conceivably similar to The Holocaust. Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen, is a wood carver specializing in making love spoons, although he is terrible when it comes to love himself. He meets Ailinn, a woman of unknown past, and falls for her in a rather strange and suspiciously arranged fashion. They begin their innocent relationship thus, which develops into a simple and strong one. But soon, the village is rocked by consecutive gruesome murders, of which Kevern is a main suspect. This soon broils into a bigger worry as the two discover that they are a part of a much larger machination of which they have no idea of.

What works –

When you start with the book, the narrative seems onerous with a whole lot of unlinked sentences put together but once you plough deeper, you recognize its sheer brilliance. It’s almost like reading poetry, it has a very sweet ring to it. I loved the way the author coins some very catchy phenomena like ‘Retinal Hysteria’ and ‘Fluttering Heart’ which are nothing but the often experienced yet subliminally ignored daily life singularities.

The author describes a world that is rather chilling from certain aspects. A world where nothing is banned, but anything thought-provoking and mind stimulating against the authority is look down upon and dejected to such an extent, that people voluntarily give up such ideas. It is this construction of a world of elective repression, which is scary because when you think of it, it doesn’t seem very implausible. The set is gloomy yet he invokes a sense of hope for the readers with Kevern and Ailinn’s love story. The characters are another thing that works in this novel. Kevern lives a lonely life, alone in his cottage on the cliff of Port Reuben. He is always suspicious and quite fastidious for people to understand his behavior. Haunted by his daunting birth, Kevern is driven to solitude and often seen as a loner. Kevern Cohen seems phlegmatic and atypical in the beginning, but as you read you find him more and more like the subdued, introvert you often come across in your workplace. But he is more than that. Ailinn is mysterious. With a big pair of feet, which Kevern points out quite unceremoniously, and wild curls for hair, she is quite a character herself. She is the perfect partner for the slightly outlandish boyfriend. Inspector Gutkind, the conspiracy theorist, Everett Zermansky the smug professor and Esme Naussbaum the head strong rebel, each have a very different and structured character with just the right amount of mystery to beseech the reader to learn more about them.

What didn’t work –
I agree that a certain level of mystery is good to keep building the story. But I feel there are so many loose ended situations that the reader can get easily frustrated. You never learn about WHAT HAPPENED IF IT HAPPENED. As the story progresses, the main characters grow more and more tedious, with a morbidity that can dampen your spirits. All the suspense that the reader puts up with to finish the book, is never met with.

Does it deserve the Booker?
This book has what it takes to be considered as a literary piece. It has an extremely convincing narrative that brings upon a sense of gloom to its readers. The pace, though rather slow, is necessary and the characters are novel in their appeals in a very normal way. What fails, at least for me, is that the story seems to leave a lot more to the reader’s imagination than it should. This is one of those books which grows upon you as you read it multiple times. If you can bring yourself to read it again, that is!

Written by Vanathi Parthasarathi

Love to read and have been reading since 5. Amatuer photographer and experimental cook! One of the best things in the world, according to me, is the smell of the pages in a book!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Nishita November 25, 2014 at 4:45 PM

I have this book now, and can’t wait to read it. Funny, I read the reviews of all the Booker prize nominated books on your blog and I saw that the winner is the one that you all ranked the lowest 🙂


IndiaBookStore November 27, 2014 at 1:22 PM

Ha ha, you’re right, Nishita. Last year, the opposite was true… our reviewers gave ‘The Luminaries’ the highest rating… and it won! No one can really predict these things, I guess… depends on the judges themselves.


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