J – Howard Jacobson

It is with great difficulty that I write the review for J, a new novel by the talented Howard Jacobson.

For me, I finished this story with similar painful confusion and disillusioned, dark sadness as when I finished 1984, Brave New World, or a Grisham novel where the corporate bad guys win in the end and leave the husband-and-wife team of pro bono lawyers penniless and broken and the townspeople suffering from terminal cancer.

Yeah. That about captures it.

Now, the power of J is in its troubling story; if it didn’t trouble us, that would show how we are already on our way to this dystopian future.

Quick summary (no spoilers!)

In J, we’ve all changed our names, we always apologize, no one is supposed to own more than one antique item but everyone does, and everyone constantly refers to “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED,” a statement which kept reminding me of Voldemort as HE WHO MUST NOT BE NAMED. (Yes, Voldemort; I dare to say it!) Mysteries abound; what happened in the big event? Why do we tolerate it? Why is everyone so violent towards each other? The story includes multiple violent sexual crimes and a fairly apathetic attitude towards them, which disturbed me greatly. The only oasis in this dark world seems to be the love story of Kevern (why not just say Kevin?) and Ailinn (Is this also a play off of a current name? Is it supposed to resemble the word “ailing” to indicate her suffering? No telling.). Plus, Ailinn has this woman, sweet but bizarre, named Esme who chooses to live with her and care for her like a live-in nurse, without any pay or motivation. Why? Super strange.

All of these mysteries would be worth it if an explanation, a wrap-up, a conclusion of some kind were given. It is not. All the pain of wondering and slogging through the convoluted language only to wind up still confused. I admit I had to Google the book summary to gain closure and confirm my suspicions. This is a blow to my intellectual pride, which tells me I somehow should have known the answers all along, but I am being truthful with you.

Who should read this book?

For people who like a challenge: If you like the mental version of a tongue-twister, invest in J. It’ll take a lot of brainpower, but you’ll be rewarded by being able to discuss this book with literary elite. It’s like cracking a code or assembling a puzzle.

For literary reasons: This novel deserves the literary acclaim it has received, purely for the masterful use of language, as a Man Booker Prize Finalist (and by the way, Jacobson won the Prize for 2 previous novels,The Mighty Walzer (1999) and The Finkler Question (2010).  His writing makes you feel as if you are underwater but just under the surface; you see the beauty and fluidity of the language but feel there’s a meaning  you just can’t quite reach. For me, that was really frustrating. The meaning was not accessible for me; I reread every page multiple times, striving for understanding and connection, and ultimately resigning myself that it was meant to be obfuscating. However, I cannot deny that the language was complex, creative and at times, genius.


For me, a great story must be more than its words. It must have meaning, connection, purpose, and express the real core of people. Sadly, for me, this story was a creative mousetrap; it lures you in and dazzles you, but leaves you empty and dazed.

I received this book free from Blogging for Books for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.


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