Two people fall in love. Kevern doesn't know why his father always drew two fingers across his lips when he said a world starting with a J. Ailinn too has grown up in the dark about where she came from. On their first date Kevern kisses the bruises under her eyes. He doesn't ask who hurt her.
Hanging over the lives of everyone is a past event shrouded in suspicion, now referred to as What Happened, If It Happened.
©2014 Howard Jacobson (P)2014 W F Howes Ltd
Howard Jacobson won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse award in 2000 for The Mighty Walzer and then again in 2013 for Zoo Time. In 2010 he won the Man Booker Prize for The Finkler Question.
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When Kevern and Ailinn meet and fall in love they aren’t entirely sure if it is fate or someone else’s machinations pushing them together. Both come from such mysterious backgrounds, neither knowing really where they come from nor being entirely sure where they are going, and the fact that they have found each other in the brutal and secretive world they live in seems quite astonishing. As certain acquaintances of theirs draw closer and begin dropping information about their families’ pasts the lovers begin to realize their relationship was not an accident and there are those who would use them to make up for a horrible wrong done in the past that the world has long been trying to erase from memory and history. But is this a wrong that can be corrected or has it all gone too far? And if it can be corrected, should it?
Does my description above seem rather vague and mysterious? Well it should! J deals almost exclusively in suggestions and innuendoes, leaving the reader to discern what actually happened in the past that no one in the present story is supposed to talk about or remember and exactly how Kevern and Ailinn fit into the plan to make up for that past wrong. This shroud of mystery makes every revelation that much more delicious and startling and the casual way the situation is discussed by the secondary characters well aware of what happened makes the actual horror of what happened that much more chilling.
This is what we, the reader, know: the world the characters live in is some future time where something horrible happened in the past that has been essentially erased from history and barely lives in the minds of most of those now living. Everyone refers to what happened in the past as “what happened, if it happened” and are discouraged from discussing it or keeping things from this past time period while never being forcibly told to not do so. There are those that would like to try and correct the injustice of this past horrible act and Kevern and Ailinn are the key to starting towards this correction. The reader will figure out what this horrible act was by the end of the story but I don’t want to give it away here…the punch to the gut wouldn’t be as strong if you know ahead of time what heinous crime was committed!
I listened to J as an audiobook and I feel this is the perfect venue for this story. The main narrator did a remarkable job of giving each character their own voice and delivered this slow burn of a story perfectly so the listener is shocked when hints as to what happened are delivered amidst casual conversation or a character’s internal dialogue. The secondary narrator, voicing the diary entries of the person tasked with watching over Kevern, served throughout to show that these main characters are being monitored and also, towards the end, to highlight that the hatred and prejudice that caused the horrible incident in the past still burned within at least some of those that remained.
A part of me wishes I could give more concrete information but another part of me wants everyone to experience this story for themselves without knowing exactly what to expect. It will remind us all how far hatred can go and just how true the statement that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it” is. This story will appeal to a wide range of readers and I would recommend it to most everyone as I found it to be a very entertaining experience.
"Cure for Insomnia"
Totally disappointed in "J". I would love to give a complete and lucid critique, but honestly the book was so boring that I kept zoning out while listening. Anything ... everything ... was more interesting than the listen ... "look, someone is walking down the road" and my mind would wander for 1/2 hour about who he was and why he was walking down a rural country road. The book just failed to hold my attention for any length of time. That said, I did find the "guts" of the book to be original and interesting - but the telling of it failed miserably.
Making my way through the Booker short list ... J was my first.
I found the narration of Kaevan to be stilted ... robotic ... as if it was being read by a person learning to read ... one ... word ... at .... a ... time. Annoying. People may talk like that on occasion to make a point, but not all the time.
As mentioned, I found it to be original in concept.
I hope it does not win the Booker. It is simply not worthy.
"Well written conceptual novel of the ugly human"
I did not love it, but neither did I hate it. It is a book about ideas - ugly ideas - thus not a comfortable companion for the hours of reading and reflection.
This is the first book I have read by Howard Jacobson - while I enjoy reading the Booker Prize long list books each year - I have often read all but the winner - including the author's "The Finkler Question" - because I just do not relate to the subject matter.
I happened to watch a documentary this morning presented by Howard Jacobson - and he was warm and charming in his presentation - talking fondly of an episode in his youth working in Sydney. I think the pessimism is more conceptual than lived?
The characters that ostensibly drive the narrative of the book were my biggest problem - Kevern was so 'Woody Allen' and newrotic - I know the point was his prickliness and otherness, which was well drawn - but I could not find the link between he and the female character to give the characters credibility.
Thus - my early impression on finishing was well crafted ugliness - and there is a place for this type of book - maybe one a year for me!
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