J by Howard Jacobson

7/10 A clever book with idiosyncratic characters.

J is a literary dystopia set in a low technology future, where the past is no longer talked about, but is only referred to in the vague manner: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. This is an interesting way to erase the past, so that within three generations people are unable to be certain that anything did happen in their grandparents’ time. There is also the likelihood that even if they could tell you, they wouldn’t. An example of this is found early in the book: “The past exists in order that we forget it.”  As a reader I found that WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED was more mysterious and intriguing than it was to the characters in this highly veiled story which has many layers to slowly be revealed but there is the continual feeling that there is an “elephant in the room”.

J follows the main characters Ailinn Solomons and Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen’s relationship in Port Reuben; these characters are outsiders in a world full of eccentric people. Kevern has many odd characteristics that differ from other male characters, such as an obsessive compulsive condition to always leave his house following a set routine. He also has a habit of annoying other people through no fault of his own, mainly for the fact that he never apologises. Kevern has always been noted as an outsider even though he was born in Port Reuben. Ailinn is a stranger to Port Reuben, having moved there recently with a friend for a change of scenery. Ailinn is a strong character who is looking to find herself.

J at its heart is centred on an interesting concept: if the past does not exist then how do you know who you are? Is part of your sense of self knowing what came before? This can be seen reflected in many different characters that people Port Reuben and the surrounding areas in the way they behave amongst each other. We are told that there is a rise of violence in the home, workplace and across the country, which is no longer being soothed by the mantra coming from Ofnow (a type of big brother nameless bureaucracy): “explain, listen, agree, apologise”. No one can explain why people are angrier and full of discontentment. Is it because they can tell there is something missing? What could have been so horrific that a nation decides to do away with their collective past?

I was compelled to read J and although it is not fast paced I enjoyed how facts were slowly revealed, so like Ailinn and Kevern you are slowly enlightened with new information. J is a clever book that could be set anywhere in the world, due to the lack of distinguishing characteristics of a particular country, although it could be an alternative reality to our current times. There are familiarities amongst the strangeness but again it is the story with its idiosyncratic characters that matters more than the place the events happen to be.

J by Howard Jacobson
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Jonathan Cape Ltd (14 Aug 2014)

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