Booker International Longlist 2022 – Books of Jacob
Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk Translated by Jennifer Croft
Book 6 – Reviewed by Rachel and Tracy
Synopsis from Booker Prize website: Olga Tokarczuk’s portrayal of Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence. Translated by Jennifer Croft.
In the mid-18th century, as new ideas begin to sweep the continent, a young Jew of mysterious origins arrives in a village in Poland. Before long, he has changed not only his name but his persona; visited by what seem to be ecstatic experiences, Jacob Frank casts a charismatic spell that attracts an increasingly fervent following.
In the decade to come, Frank will traverse the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires as he reinvents himself again and again. He converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order with scandalous rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.
Rachel’s Thoughts: Wow. What an undertaking! I’m not the most enthusiastic reader when it comes to Big Books, and it took some persuasion (thanks Simona!) to get me to read this 1137-page fictionalised history of 18th Century heretic Jew and self-claimed Messiah Jacob Frank and his followers. It sounded far too much like hard work to actually be enjoyable.. but wow.
I’m in absolute awe of Tokarczuk ‘s writing and Croft’s translation – the story is handed so effortlessly from one person to the next; you’re discreetly reminded who’s who as the characters undergo their multiple name changes or fade from view and reappear chapters later; and it never loses pace! The descriptions of the sect’s world and daily lives are rich, as their circumstances change and they move across Europe. It feels rare to read historical fiction where so few of the key players are aristocrats or politicians, and the parallels with today’s world affairs make it feel very current (and, at times, heartbreaking). Few of the characters can be described as likeable, we see the world (and Frank) through so many different eyes, including from Yente’s all-seeing perspective – and yet, despite myself, I was gripped.
In the interests of getting through it, I read this as an ebook – but I’m absolutely still waiting for my library reservation to come through, so I can appreciate the images, original documents, and unusual page-numbering of the print. Oh, and did I say? Wow.
Writing quality: 5/5
Character development: 3.5/4
Plot development: 4/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Tracy’s Thoughts: Thankfully I didn’t drop this one on my toe. Even in paperback, it’s a chunkster.
Let’s start with the writing: wonderful! Olga T. can write. I loved the characters, I loved the vibe, I loved the story. I don’t know how original it was, but I didn’t care as I was reading. There were moments when it dragged. A lot. I think this could have done with an editor who loves a red pen- there was information and descriptions that felt duplicated and/or extraneous.
But I loved it, and I will keep this book to possibly reread. Or squish those giant garden spiders in the news recently. (God forbid they make it from Florida to Iowa!)
Writing quality: 4.5/5
Character development: 4/4
Plot development: 3.5/4
Overall enjoyment: 2/2
Elena Knows 18.25
Books of Jacob 18.25
Happy Stories, Mostly 16
After the Sun 11.33
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