J – Howard Jacobson


A love story set in a dystopian future 

Decades in the future Kevern lives in a cottage on sea cliffs near Port Reuben and makes art with wood. He meets Ailinn and falls in love. The two begin a passionate romance, and move in together. Yet neither knows where they have come from or what their plans are because speaking of the past, of historical brutalities is not an accepted thing any longer.

There has been an historical catastrophe but this is referred to only as “what happened, if it happened”. (The catastrophe is presumably the Holocaust and the J word which no one can say any longer: Jew.) This inability to remember or to speak freely shrouds everyone in suspicion, denial and apology.

One day a detective comes to Port Reuben to investigate a triple murder. He and others suspect that the passions of people, long repressed by the government which strives for harmony, are resurfacing in violent ways as a result of being bottled up for so long.

Kevern recalls an interaction with one of the murdered women, causing him and Ailinn to question their love. They aren’t even sure if they have fallen in love of their own accord or if there is some greater force at play that requires them to be in one another’s lives.

He didn’t want to feel better. He owed it to what he’d been told to feel worse. That was what living a serious life meant, wasn’t it, honoring the gravity of things by not pretending they were light? Rozenwyn Feigenblat had told him he was an ethicist, not an artist. He agreed with her. An artist owed a duty to nothing except his own irresponsibility. It was OK for an artist to frolic in the water, no matter how bloody the waves or how high the tide rose. An ethicist had an obligation to drown.

✎ “Murky, confusing, weird, interesting, oddly funny.  I enjoyed J but I wish I had read it without the Man Booker pressure, I would’ve enjoyed taking my time a bit more with this one. It felt 1984-ish for me.” – Suzy

✎ “I always admire authors who can create a dystopian future but sometimes I get lost in the details. Which is what happened here. The unnamed catastrophe could have been any of our history’s tragedies and I think Jacobson made many poignant references to them, making this an important story.” – Rachel

Published 2014
Jonathan Cape
426 pages

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