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Editorial Reviews

This Booker Prize-winning novel doesn’t cover a lot of thematic ground; like Jane Austen, Howard Jacobson likes to explore a narrow field of study. In his case, it is the UK’s Jewish population especially as focussed around north London. But also like Austen, Jacobson’s miniaturist observations can illuminate and touch on universal questions, and has room for multi-layered comedy.

Julian Treslove is an unspectacular television producer of arts programs and a celebrity impersonator, with two failed marriages behind him and two distant, resentful sons. A gentile convinced that a Jewish identity would offer asylum from his identity crisis, Treslove is acutely envious of his old school friend Sam Finkler, now a highly successful author of glib pop-philosophy best sellers with titles like “The Existentialist in the Kitchen”. For Treslove, Finkler comes to represent Jewish identity: The ‘Jewish question’ (in all its loaded historical ambivalence) becomes the Finkler question, at once sanitized and personalized. Both men regularly meet with their former teacher, Libor Sevcik, a colorful Mittel-European transplant who serves as the book’s heart (as well as narrator Steven Crossley’s finest achievement). He is crotchety, funny, and touching in his devotion to his dead wife, even while on hilariously awkward dates.

Jacobson has great fun in pitting his character’s different approaches to Jewishness against each other, particularly Treslove’s gauche appropriation (“He looked like Topol; that’s how Treslove knew he was a Jew.”). There is a sense that the three male leads are facets of one personality with a schismatic approach to Jewishness: Crossley, however, is able to give each one their own unique voice. In fact, with The Finkler Question, Crossley gives a masterclass in narration. His characterizations are colorful without lapsing into caricature, and he unfailingly gets the intent behind each line, each rhetorical question, each instance of passive-aggressive indignation (and there’s a lot of that). Especially with this book, the narrator has an important task: the physical attack that kicks off Treslove’s identity crisis hinges on a linguistic confusion, and Crossley’s obsessive delivery of each permutation of the attacker’s garbled words is just one very funny moment in an excellent performance.

Publisher's Summary

Man Booker Prize, Fiction, 2010

Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler are old school friends. Despite a prickly relationship and very different lives, they've never quite lost touch with each other - or with their former teacher, Libor Sevick. Now all three are recently widowed, in their own way, and spend sweetly painful evenings together reminiscing. Until an unexpected violent attack brings everything they thought they knew into question.

©2010 Howard Jacobson (P)2010 WF Howes Ltd

What members say

Average Customer Ratings

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
  • BabsD
  • 19-11-2010

Funny, touching, thoughtful

Wonderful book, brimming with challenging and fascinating characters. Jacobson provides the sparkling words---ironic, true, funny, depressing, illuminating. All of the characters are flawed humans, all receive the author's empathy. Crossley captures each of the characters brilliantly, even the women (and such wonderful women, from the departed Melkie to the serious and humane Hepzibah). Whether precocious child, snarling teen, or ancient Czech, Crossley finds their essence. Was bereft when it ended (only complaint is with the packager, who stepped on the ending without a pause to breathe).

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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    4 out of 5 stars
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    3 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Sean
  • 22-09-2018

Poignant, complex and touch - very 'Finkleresque'.

This book captures the complexities of being Jewish and human, both for Jews and non-Jews alike. The Jew, as a character in human history has been both reviled (Shylock, Judas, modern-day Israel) and loved (Jesus, David, Einstein). This book cleverly explores the complex relationship that society and culture has with Jews and Jews with the rest of the world. The book's title is a play on 'the Jewish question' or 'Jewish problem', which was an ongoing vile debate in 19th and 20th century Europe, around the status of Jews, their rights and political status.

The fact that this was even a subject for debate and in some cases still is, shows a level of madness within the human mind I feel. This deeply destructive and hateful part of us has lead to genocides and discrimination against Jews and others; this is what the book tries to come to grips with. The protagonist, a non-Jew, who struggles with what it means to be Jewish, both in his admiration for them as well as jealousy of them, drives him to a type of hysteria that he struggles to explicate himself from. It's a funny, witty book that is both charming and challenging at times. The only issue I had was the narrator's Czech accent, that needed some work.

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  • Paul
  • 29-12-2013

Wise and hilarious.

Any additional comments?

Humor is a curious business, isn't it. Unlike some other reviewers here, I laughed all the way.

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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Deborah
  • 14-01-2011

Brilliant, dark, funny and a complete pleasure

This book is such an unexpected treat, especially given most of the other reviews. The 3 main characters (Treslove, Finkler and Libor) are brilliant, very clever and funny but also very human and quite sad and by the end of the book you feel you know them inside out (the reader characterizes them beautifully, especially Libor, my favourite). What does it mean to be Jewish, is it a blessing or a curse? The quest to answer this conundrum, the main theme of the book, makes you often smile inside or laugh out loud but the humour is very dark, constellated with wry wisdom. If you 'get it', this is a most wonderful book. I'm going to read more Jacobson on the basis of this.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
  • John
  • 20-01-2011

Interesting but soulless

Even though I know it was deliberately void of character development, it was just a bit too soulless for me. Lot's of clever thematic metaphors and all that malarkey but all head and no heart makes Serge a dull boy. One for the critics to de-construct.

The narrator didn't help much either. He reminded me of a newsreader half the time. Maybe he was just keeping in spirit with the lack of emotion in the book. The sound quality wasn't great either though.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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    3 out of 5 stars
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  • Lauenna
  • 18-04-2015

Enjoyed the second half

I really struggled with the first half of this book mainly because of how the main characters perceived women. It improved with the introduction of a female character or two and getting into the nitty gritty of the diversity of the London Jewish experience.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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    1 out of 5 stars
  • Hugh
  • 21-01-2011

The Finkler Question

Despite very good reviews I was most disappointed with this book. I only managed to get half-way through before deciding that it is a lot of inconsequential drivel, so I gave up. The main problem is that the story-line is so thin that it does not maintain the listener's to listen on, at least not mine.

4 of 6 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
  • Tom
  • 08-11-2010

oh dear....

I bought this book because it's a booker Prize winner and because the audiobook got a really good review in the Telegraph, which I have previously found to be pretty reliable. I wish, however, that I had read some the reviews on the amazon website first.

I'm about 1 1/2 hours into the book. so far there's nothing resembling a plot, the characters are ill-defined and not really very attractive or interesting, and laboured jewish jokes are not really my cup of tea. On top of that, the narration is decidedly off-putting.....What really disappoints me is that Howard Jacobson is supposed to be a humourous author. Well, I dont find him at all funny. Very forced and heavy handed.

So I'm giving up. I may come back to the book if I lose my will to live.

8 of 13 people found this review helpful

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    2 out of 5 stars
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  • Antony
  • 13-05-2015

Disappointing

This won the Booker Prize a few years ago. No idea why. Tediously repetitive, two of the three main characters are entirely unsympathetic (Libor was the only person I liked) and not very funny, despite what I thought was a good, well charaterised reading by Stephen Crossley. I almost gave up with two hours to go, and now I have finished I wish I had given up and done something more rewarding with the time.

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    5 out of 5 stars
  • Helen
  • 17-10-2012

Thoroughly Brilliant

Love the way this book is written, the narration by Steven Crossley is just beautiful, he brings to life the three main characters Treslove, Finkler and Libor so well that you really feel like you have got to know them personally, towards the end of the book its quite sad especially as you have gained a sort of intimacy with each one by then. What its like to be Jewish or what its like to want to be Jewish are the questions that come up throughout the text in a heartwarming, funny and very intimate way. Loved Kalooki Nights so was really looking forward to this one by the end of it, I was not disappointed. Giving The Finkler Question five stars, loved it and can not wait to read more from Howard Jacobson.

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    2 out of 5 stars
  • Elizabeth
  • 25-05-2011

A disappointing answer

I had heard this was a funny book, but I barely smiled apart from one exception where I did laugh out loud. It is overlong, self-absorbed and too full of clever and not so clever wordplay. The minutes or pages devoted to whether a character has heard or misheard a certain phrase, which is returned to again and again, were simply tiresome. Had it been a physical book i may have thrown it out of the window.
ALL the characters seem addicted to the wordplay, which makes one assume it is the author who is addicted to it, and he should realise that it drives some people crazy, and perhaps thereby credit one of his characters with that stance. It would have made the whole more believable. a slow read , I wish I hadnt bothered with. Sorry.

2 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
    2 out of 5 stars
  • Clare
  • 09-01-2011

Why on earth did this win a Booker?!

I agree with the previous reviewer. Characters not particularly likeable or sympathetic, plot non-existent, too many and not very interesting or clever jewish jokes. This could have been illuminating and entertaining, but it was neither. I don't even think that it is particularly well-written. A rare disappointment from audible and from the Booker judges.

2 of 4 people found this review helpful