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The Books of Jacob

Review

The Books of Jacob

written by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

Named “one of Europe’s most daring and original writers” by the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2018, Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year. The first book published by her since receiving this great honor, THE BOOKS OF JACOB is a tour de force about a little examined period of European history.

This singular story reads like an outsize cultural fable but is based on the true adventures of a messianic religious man with a compelling ability to wrap audiences around his finger (and ideas) in 18th-century Poland. It is as big as a doorstop, clocking in at nearly a thousand pages, and encompasses brilliant and unique ideas about religion, humanity, and the magical stew of love, political fervor and rebellion.

"This is the type of book that wins a Nobel Prize, a masterpiece that so deftly tells its historical tales that you will be thinking about it for years to come. It is an experience that is worth your time and is truly unforgettable."

Jacob Frank, a young Jewish man of mysterious origins, arrives in a Polish village. Soon after, he is set upon by religiously ecstatic experiences, and uses his charisma and intelligence to create a fevered and dedicated following. For the next 10 years, Frank continues traveling through the Hapsburg and Ottoman empires. Followed by his disciples, he reinvents himself, converting to Islam and then to Catholicism, pilloried as a heretic and revered as a Messiah.

To this day, Jacob Frank remains an enigmatic and controversial figure. Tokarczuk takes the depth and breadth of his multi-faceted life and travels, and presents his story through the perspectives of his contemporaries --- those who worship or hate him, the friend who betrays him, the woman who truly sees him for what he is. THE BOOKS OF JACOB resonates with readers today as it captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, in which those who follow Frank are searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.

Jennifer Croft, the award-winning translator of Tokarczuk’s first book, FLIGHTS, has her work cut out for her with this enormous tome. However, once the story starts rolling, the character of Frank wields his power over readers, and the words flow uninhibited as one falls prisoner to the dramatic circumstances and questions of his identity. In a nod to books written in Hebrew, THE BOOKS OF JACOB is paginated in reverse, beginning on p. 955 and ending on p. 1, but is read traditionally from front cover to back. This small but important detail immediately gives readers the sense that the journey they are taking is unique and unforgettable.

The historical aspects feel particularly visceral, given the difficulties of the Eastern European countries right now. And the spirit of the dense and intensive thought we’ve all given to the world while stuck in COVID lockdown --- the way the world works versus the world we wish to live in --- finds an intellectual twin in the call that the book makes for diversity, inclusivity and a world without barriers. As Frank crosses borders and finds melting pots of religious possibilities and cultural formalities in each place, he attempts to explore with his followers the fantastic and universal ways that the world can be depicted and developed. This tome is a masterful story, using Tokarczuk’s strong narrative imagination to resonate with contemporary audiences the same way that Frank would have done with his 18th-century counterparts.

THE BOOKS OF JACOB is a commitment, dear readers. However, I do not think that anyone would fail to get swept up in this epic story, as dense as the product itself, as far-reaching as the most spiritually investigative books known to humankind. This is the type of book that wins a Nobel Prize, a masterpiece that so deftly tells its historical tales that you will be thinking about it for years to come. It is an experience that is worth your time and is truly unforgettable.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on March 4, 2022

The Books of Jacob
written by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 992 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593087488
  • ISBN-13: 9780593087480