Review: J

And so we come to the last book of my 2015 Reading Challenge: Howard Jacobson’s J. I briefly considered dropping this, as I’d finished 12 of the 14 books on my list, and 12 new (to me) books was the goal I’d set. Then I spotted J in the local library, and decided that it was meant to be.

J is set in the future, after a cataclysmic event which may or may not have happened, which has led to a number of cultural changes to ensure that what may have happened definitely doesn’t happen again; names have been changed, technology is severely curtailed, history is to be ignored. In the midst of this setting we read the story of Kevern and Ailinn, two social misfits who meet, court, and decide to make a life together, only to discover that their romance may have been aided by the authorities, who have their own interest in seeing them start a family.

Very little in J is explicitly stated. The hints tell those who know their history that the event which no one wants to admit to was a Jewish pogrom, but the way in which Jacobson stops short of putting things into words makes it possible to draw parallels with current events. Everett’s diary entries in particular are a chilling example of humankind’s propensity to blame their problems on someone who they know to be different. At the same time, J shows us a uniform society that is culturally stagnant, suggesting that the erasure of difference is not the answer.

My perception of dystopian novels is that they tend toward unrelenting darkness, so I was pleasantly surprised by the light, hopeful tone that worked as a counterpoint to the darker moments. I also enjoyed the way in which J hinted at information which might have been spelled out in a lesser novel, forcing me to tease out the pieces of the puzzle for myself. The shifting narrative did leave some things hanging however – having set up the murders, and the curious character of Densdell Kroplik, this thread is left to drift, and we never learn if the killer was caught, or what Kroplik intends. This, along with the finale of Kevern and Ailinn’s story, left me a little unsatisfied with the ending. That said, I finished the book already feeling that I would like to re-read it, and see what subtleties I may have missed in my haste to trace the story.

All in all, J was a fine book on which to end my Reading Challenge.