Book review: J by Howard Jacobson

J_Howard_Jacobson“Set in the future - a world where the past is a dangerous country, not to be talked about or visited - J is a love story of incomparable strangeness, both tender and terrifying.”

Kevern, a resident of a small village called Port Reuben, lives in a state of constant fear. Before leaving his house, he kicks the antique silk rug so it looks like something no one would care about, leaves a mug of tea on the table, and then carefully locks his door. But before he goes wherever it is he has to go, he looks into the house multiple times through the post flap to ensure that the house looks like it’s waiting for him to return at any minute. Why the paranoia?

Ailinn is an orphan who is passing through Port Ruben when someone who looks like a “pig auctioneer” points her out to Kevern and gets their paths to cross. She has fears of her own – she fears the unknown, unseen enemy, who she’s nicknamed Ahaab. She doesn’t know who this enemy is or where this enemy will come from. But she knows he’s out there, that he could come for her at anytime.
Kevern and Ailinn fall in love, but they’re never sure if they met by chance or if they were pushed into each other’s arms. But who would have pushed them, and why?

“Hanging over the lives of all the characters in this novel is a momentous catastrophe - a past event shrouded in suspicion, denial and apology, now referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.”

And to make sure that WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED does not happen again, Ofnow, the “non-statutory monitor of the public mood”, issues slogans like Let Sleeping Dogs Lie and The Overexamined Life is Not Worth Living. Histories and books have been redacted, and music and culture are controlled by collective consent. The radio plays love songs, jazz is dead because improvisation has “fallen out of fashion”, literature constitutes “rags-to-riches memoirs, cookbooks and romances”, and conversation steers clear of jokes, insults or witticisms. Social media and the internet have been done away with, phones are meant for local calls only and letter writing is back in fashion.

In such a world, where names have been changed to ensure that no one knows anyone’s antecedents, where people say sorry even if they have nothing to be sorry about, where all that you hear are love songs, you’d think violence would be non-existent. However, that is not the case. Brutality has grown commonplace. Snogging (a violent form of kissing) is the norm and rage is on the rise. Because, as it turns out, there is no “other” on whom that anger can be directed. And that “other” is Jews, who have been wiped out, this time for good. So Ofnow steps in with a plan to do something to address the rising aggression, and that plan directly involves Kevern and Ailinn.

The novel raises some excellent questions – on mob mentality; identity and selfhood; belonging, exclusion and “otherness”. There are some incredible insights, like the idea of Twitternacht, which is the event responsible for WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. And the idea is horrifyingly plausible – social media is awash with racism and fundamentalism of all hues and colors. Could we see a mass slaughter of any racial segment of the society? Unfortunately, if the opinions expressed on social media are anything to go by, the answer is Yes. We live in frightening times, where intolerance is only growing. And this novel paints an even more frightening picture of the possible aftermath of such a catastrophe.

An easy read it isn’t. At times, it’s even a tad frustrating. But still, it is highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher, but the opinions expressed in this are my own.
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    • It is both of those things! And in parts it is a bit “full of itself”. But still, it is a good read. If you do get around to reading it, I’d love to know what you think! 🙂

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