Some books I keep reading because I am desperate to know what happens, some because I care about those that inhabit the pages, others out of a sense of duty, which whilst not exactly pleasure is not unpleasant. This book I kept reading because I was hoping I might eventually “get it”. That a line somewhere would somehow shed light on what’s a rather obscure love story with a context that is rich with unfulfilled potential. I reached the last page through sheer stubbornness and am still none the wiser about what Jacobson was trying to achieve.
Which is a shame because there’s something clever and important going on: the J of Jacobson’s book is supposed to refer to Jewishness, the historical what happened if it happened that shapes the book’s fictional present is genocide, and the novel is full of questions about the nature of hatred and anti-Semitism, which one of the characters argues need to exist, and indeed must be nurtured, in order to provide a point of reference for their opposites. But the writer’s handling of the subject matter feels unfocused, rambling and at times absurd.
As dystopian science fiction, there’s plenty to challenge the reader, and in many ways Jacobson’s vision is both more likely and more terrifying than the more usual corporate or technology controlled futures of other books in this genre. But, again, it’s all a bit jumbled and vague.
The main event is the growing relationship between Kevern Cohen, who makes love spoons, and Ailinn Solomons, who makes paper flowers. They are likeable enough and Jacobson tells the story of their fragile romance with compassion, humour and delicacy. The two live on the island of Port Reuben and get tangled up in the hunt for the murderer of a local woman. This in turn leads to the reader’s discovery that they are the centrepiece of a state social experiment to breed a whole new race of people as a focus for society’s hatred and anger. It’s a chilling, compelling and above all credible concept, so it’s deeply frustrating that everything’s so oblique, that I’ve had to read other people’s reviews in order to develop anything approaching an understanding of this book.
Thankfully, J was long listed for the 2014 Booker prize so lots has been written about it. Interestingly, most of those articles offer far greater insight and are far better written than the book itself, and whilst they made me want to like J: A NOVEL, I am afraid it’s not one I’ll be recommending any time soon.