Rebecca Wallersteiner reviews the pace-setting novel that explores love and romance in a futuristic setting, J.
Last week, author Howard Jacobson was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for his book J. The author, one of two British nominees, could take the prize for the second time after winning with The Finkler Question back in 2010.
Howard Jacobson’s hilarious last novel Zoo Time, featuring a middle-aged Jewish man obsessed with his mother-in-law, won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Award in 2013.
J – his latest book – couldn’t be more different, although it also touches on dysfunctional relationships and is spiced with the author’s familiar northern black humour.
Set in the future, where the past is a dangerous country not to be talked about or visited, the strange storyline reminds the reader of George Orwell’s 1984.
A momentous catastrophe, a past event shrouded in suspicions and denial, lies at the core of the Jacobson novel, and bookies had already named J as one of the favourites to win the 2014 Booker Prize, long before the shortlist was made.
“One good thing about winning the Booker is you don’t feel you need to have to worry about winning it again – although I rather like seeing my name on lists,” explained Jacobson when we met at Muswell Hill synagogue in September 2012.
The story follows awkward loner Kevern Cohen who falls in love with Ailinn Solomons, ‘a wild-haired, delicate beauty’.
Neither knows where the other has come from nor where they are going. Ailinn has grown up in a society where violence and misogyny are the norm.
On their first date, Kevern kisses the bruises under Ailinn’s eyes and doesn’t ask who hurt her.
Could this be Howard Jacobson referencing the Northern England of his childhood, where working-class domestic violence was commonplace, I wonder?
Retiring and gentle, Kevern teaches the unusual art of carving love spoons at a local academy and prefers to spend his leisure time in the library rather than socialising with staff.
Equally artistic, but rather more outgoing, Ailinn paints dreamy, visionary landscapes which help her forget her troubled past.
Meanwhile, Kevern’s secretive, ageing parents are behaving oddly.
Kevern doesn’t know why his father always draws his fingers across his lips when he says a word starting with a ‘J’.
One afternoon, his gloomy mother mysteriously self-combusts in the garden. Soon after, on his last night, Kevern’s 80-year-old father endlessly plays Ray Charles singing You are my Sunshine, shaking his fists at his ancient sound system.
Orphaned, Kevern inherits a number of his father’s locked boxes, all marked ‘Private Property’.
Going through them, he discovers his parents were first cousins.
Why, he wonders, have they left incriminating documents behind? He can’t forgive them for ‘not taking their secret to the grave,’ and keeping him in the dark about ‘what they’d done, as they’d kept him in the dark about almost everything else in their past – where they’d come from, what sort of family theirs was, who they were’.
Kevern worries that discovering his ‘depraved inheritance’ will put him off sex but it turns out he doesn’t have to worry.
Ailinn patiently puts up with her lover’s anxieties and obsessive compulsive tendencies – though his snail-like driving understandably drives her up the wall.
He in turn accepts her racier past and boosts her confidence, proving to her that not all men are bullying beasts, as her miserable childhood had led her to believe.
The descriptions of their developing love affair are touching.
Then a bizarre love-triangle murder in the village threatens their fragile happiness.
It didn’t surprise me to hear from Jacobson when we last spoke that he gets some of his best reviews from women, as he writes very sensitively about the complexities of relationships and love affairs.
Kevern and Ailinn are convincing haunted characters.
As they discover who they are and where they come from, a bigger, more shattering truth is revealed to them.
“I’ve been called ‘the Jewish Jane Austen’ – well I’m Jewish and pleased to be compared to her, although I am not certain what she would make of being compared to me,” quipped Jacobson when we met.
This brilliantly-written and thought-provoking novel is a real merit to him. Although not a fan of the time-travelling genre, I couldn’t put the book down.
Both tender and terrifying, it is a profound and compelling read.
As with all Jacobson’s novels, despite being set in the future, the characters are unmistakably Jewish.
• The winner of the Man Booker Prize will be announced on Tuesday 14 October