129.Howard Jacobson-J cover

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.

Two people fall in love, not yet knowing where they have come from or where they are going. Kevern doesn’t know why his father always drew two fingers across his lips when he said a word starting with a J. It wasn’t then, and isn’t now, the time or place to be asking questions. Ailinn too has grown up in the dark about who she was or where she came from. On their first date Kevern kisses the bruises under her eyes. He doesn’t ask who hurt her. Brutality has grown commonplace. They aren’t sure if they have fallen in love of their own accord, or whether they’ve been 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.

~ Synopsis from goodreads

Aah, I don’t know what to think about this book. On the one hand, the story and the writing is beautiful, thoughtful, and engaging.

On the other hand, I have a great dislike for literary fiction showcasing issues through the lens of a dystopian world. Creating a believable dystopia is not easy and few mainstream literary fiction writers get it right (Margaret Atwood, I think is one of them. Oryx and Crake was not perfect from a literary point of view, but boy, did she get the world-building right).

J suffers from the opposite problem – a wonderful, tender, achingly beautiful love story that struggles to breathe in a suffocating and unbelievable dystopian world.

I found myself having to suspend belief for a large part of the book. I mean can you imagine us going back to a world where foreign travel is discouraged, electronic communication is banned, and books and art are censored? Frankly, once the information and freedom bunnies are let out of the box, it’s very difficult to put them back in, and I find dystopias that attempt this going backwards in technology and knowledge thing (particularly in western countries) somewhat unbelievable. I had the same struggle with The Queen of the Tearling – a completely different style of book, but with the same unbelievable dystopia issue.

However, once I looked past the unbelievable setting and got into the actualities of the plot, oh, I found such a wonderful story inside.

Ailinn and Kevern are a couple in love. However, they struggle individually about the weightlessness of their pasts. Wait, what? Well, neither person knows actually much about their parents. Ailinn was an orphan who grew up in an orphanage and then adopted by an indifferent family. Kevern knows his parents were afraid of something, that they hoarded things secretly, that they were a bit strange, but that’s all he knows. He grows up feeling like an alien, develops all types of paranoid habits, but he has no idea why he feels this way.

When a couple of brutal murders happen in the bucolic village they are living in, both of them are forced to think about their pasts and understand their heritage. To help them along their way are a couple of people who offer little pointers. But will Ailinn and Kevern be able to deal with the truth when they do find out?

And this is the part of the book that I absolutely adored. Jacobson has created two lovely vulnerable people in Ailinn and Kevern, and I so loved the way their love story is written – the way they meet, how they fall in love. Gosh! It was so romantic in a very restrained, adult kind of way, and I was gunning for them both to get together. The whole uncertainty of their pasts issue only adds to the pathos of their love story.

I also love the way Jacobson slowly oh, so slowly unravels the secrets of their lives, and the world where they live. The writing was just so very skilful, and with so much control over the plot and I can see why this book made it to the Man Booker 2014 shortlist.

However, the dystopia was unsatisfying, and there was a little too much left untold at the end of the book and the resolution for one major plot point – the murders in the village was a little under-cooked in my opinion. And all these weaknesses overall made this book good, but not great read.

Huge thanks to Penguin Random House for sending me this book for review consideration.

You can also purchase a copy of this book from Amazon

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  • It’s interesting that you don’t buy dystopian stories where information and freedom go backwards. You mention Oryx and Crake — how did you feel about The Handmaid’s Tale? That’s one where everything goes VERY backwards, and it felt extraordinarily real to me (I kept thinking of Iran after the revolution). I’m still interested in J, but I’ll keep in mind not to expect too much from the worldbuilding.

    • Nishita

      @readingtheend:disqus You’re right. I forgot about The Handmaid’s Tale. How could I not mention that?

      Yes that was a really well-done dystopia. I loved that book, and the story was just so powerful. Phew, one of my all-time favorites.

      The dystopia in J was just not very convincing and the story though good just couldn’t overcome the unrealness of that world.

      If you do read J, I would be very interested to know what you thought of it. It’s really an odd scene setting.

  • Karen

    Me and dystopian fiction don’t make good bedfellows i’m afraid. I can never get past the fact that it doesn’t feel real.

    • Nishita

      @disqus_gmoXW9BOB2:disqus Yeah, same here. The world-building has to be really solid for me to like a dystopia. It’s strange that I am quite forgiving with science fiction and fantasy, but so hard on dystopia. But there it is, it will never be my favorite genre.

  • Lipsy Pennell

    I love the sound of this!

    • Nishita

      @lipsypennell:disqus it sounded fantastic! But I wished the story moved along a little more cohesively.

  • Great review! It’s too bad that the good parts are diminished by the not so good parts. It still sounds like it might be worth a read someday…

    • Nishita

      @disqus_TYO2upw2ie:disqus oh yes. It’s definitely a thought-provoking read, and there are all sorts of insights in there, and his writing is great. I do want to read his earlier book The Finkler Question, which I’ve heard is much better.

  • I am with you. It’s very hard to get dystopia right in a lit fiction book. The expectations are higher, and not many authors meet them well. I guess I will pass this book – the plot sounds interesting, but the same things that bothered you will bother me too.

    • Nishita

      @athirac:disqus yeah, I am anyway not a big dystopia fan. Plus, the blurb on the back of the book compared it to Brave New World and 1984. Not even close!

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