“Just as awe-inspiring as the Nobel judges claimed.” – The Washington Post
“Olga Tokarczuk is one of our greatest living fiction writers. . . This could well be a decade-defining book akin to Bolaño’s 2666.” –AV Club
“Sophisticated and ribald and brimming with folk wit. . . The comedy in this novel blends, as it does in life, with genuine tragedy.” –Dwight Garner, The New York Times
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2022 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, TIME, THE NEW YORKER, AND NPR
The Nobel Prize–winner’s richest, most sweeping and ambitious novel yet follows the comet-like rise and fall of a mysterious, messianic religious leader as he blazes his way across eighteenth-century Europe.
In the mid-eighteenth century, as new ideas—and a new unrest—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 with throngs of disciples in his thrall as he reinvents himself again and again, converts to Islam and then Catholicism, is pilloried as a heretic and revered as the Messiah, and wreaks havoc on the conventional order, Jewish and Christian alike, with scandalous rumors of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs. The story of Frank—a real historical figure around whom mystery and controversy swirl to this day—is the perfect canvas for the genius and unparalleled reach of Olga Tokarczuk. Narrated through the perspectives of his contemporaries—those who revere him, those who revile him, the friend who betrays him, the lone woman who sees him for what he is—The Books of Jacob captures a world on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
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 read traditionally, front cover to back.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Whether or not you’ve ever heard of the 18th-century self-proclaimed Jewish messiah Jacob Frank, this historical novel will have you riveted. Nobel Prize–winning Polish author Olga Tokarczuk takes us through the charismatic Jacob’s story as he sets himself in opposition to orthodox Judaism and Christianity alike with his own secretive, hedonistic sect, which attracts thousands of followers across central and eastern Europe and confounds authorities. Tokarczuk puts Jacob’s tumultuous life into context, describing the extreme cultural, religious, and political divisions of his time and exploring the lives of his followers with intimate empathy. Her elaborate prose is mesmerizing, at once delicate and strong—she immerses us in the sights, sounds, and spiritual desires of this unique time and place in history. The Books of Jacob transports you to a past moment that resonates today.
Nobel laureate Tokarczuk's subtle and sensuous masterpiece (after Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead) weaves together the stories of characters searching for a meaningful life and spiritual truth in Eastern and Southeastern Europe during the second half of the 18th century. The novel's wide cast includes Nahman, a Jewish merchant who has abandoned his familial responsibilities to study religious philosophy; and Moliwda, a Polish Christian ashamed of his past and intrigued by Judaism. They are connected by their fascination with the novel's central character, Jacob Frank, a charismatic Jewish merchant who proclaims himself the Messiah and gathers a following with his erotic and liberated vision of life. Jacob's Jewish followers are encouraged to eat religiously banned food products and get baptized, and importantly for the libidinous Jacob adultery is no longer frowned upon among his following. Readers are rewarded throughout with tender and ebullient moments, such as the jubilant dancing of Jacob and his followers as they wait to cross into Polish territory on a mission to spread his message. Nahman and Moliwda spend a good deal of time holding conversations on conundrums that are difficult for them to square, such as life's difficulty despite the purported goodness of God. In the hands of Tokarczuk and Croft, these concerns feel real and vital the result of Tokarczuk's deep investment in her material. This visionary work will undoubtedly be read and talked about by lovers of literature for years to come.
So one track for such a tome
I admit I could not get beyond 20% of the book, but it just seemed so narrowly focused on a story circling around Jewish mysticism that I couldn’t get into it. Ok I learned something about Kaballah, but I was expecting more from such a famous author. It was just taking too long to get to any point. But it must be me, since after all the author did win the Nobel Prize.