Cannonball Read 6, Book 36: J by Howard Jacobson

22370991So this year, I’m not doing the whole Booker Prize Longlist. After last year’s epic slog and some disappointments of a very large magnitude, I approached this year’s list with a more discerning eye. I immediately discounted three of the titles, while noting with varying degrees of smuggery that I owned another two of the list and had already read one of them. A fourth title, this one, was also sitting on one of the bookshelves in the flat, but it didn’t belong to me. It was one I was very dubious about. Jacobson won the Booker in 2010, one of the years I tried and failed in my Longlist challenge. His was one I didn’t read, and is STILL one I haven’t read. So I wasn’t sure, but I thought, well, it’s sitting right here, what harm can it do?

“Two people fall in love in a world where the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited. As they discover where they came from and where they are going, a bigger, more shattering truth is revealed to them.”

The reason for the past never to be discussed is some huge catastrophic event occurred, one so awful that it can’t be remembered and has become so cloaked in mystery down the years, that it’s now referred to only as “what happened, if it happened”. Everyone changed their name, and so did every town, in the aftermath, in a bid to wipe the slate clean. This explains why everyone in the book has such horribly unwieldy names like Kevern and Ailinn (our main protagonists), as well as Demelza, Kroplinn, Ythel and the like, as ugly to look at as they are to pronounce.

So Kevern and Ailinn meet and begin a relationship. He is softer than most other men she’s been with, as a lingering symptom of WHIIH is a streak of unpleasant violence in the populace. To try and stem it, only Benign Visual Arts are permitted and OfNow monitors the public mood. There are several subplots relating to all this, swirling around the central story of two damaged souls trying to find their way together. Kevern’s father crossed his lips with two fingers whenever he spoke the letter J, hence the title and the cover design, and now Kevern does too, though he no longer recalls why. Jacobson litters the book with odd little moments like this which makes for interesting if never truly gripping reading.

And that was my issue. The book is fine, but I didn’t think it was great. And when the shattering truth is finally revealed, I wasn’t really that fussed. He did pull off a nice coup that made me gasp earlier in the novel though, which is an impressive feat. If the final pages had lived up to that, it would have been a whole different story. As it is, the hype from the publishers that this “deserves to be spoken in the same breath as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World“, I couldn’t help but think that Huxley did it first and did it better.

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