The Books of Jacob

Riverhead. Feb. 2022. 992p. tr. from Polish by Jennifer Croft. ISBN 9780593087480. $35. F
In stark contrast to her earlier genre-bending Flights and the dark crime of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, 2018 Nobel Prize winner Tokarczuk now tries her hand at the historical novel. Drawing on the life of the controversial 18th-century Polish Jew and self-appointed messiah Jacob Frank, the author follows his peregrinations with his followers throughout eastern Europe in a vertiginous series of events. Although the pagination is backward, in deference to Hebrew tradition, the narrative moves forward for over 900 pages through seven “books,” themselves fragmented into several hundred smaller sections. The almost mythic voice of the omniscient narrator is assisted in the telling by a disciple and by epistolary exchanges, set apart in different fonts. In one of many nods to magical realism, the disembodied spirit of Frank’s grandmother presides over the whole story. Because of the swarm of characters, a list of names and relationships to each other would have been helpful and arguably indispensable.
VERDICT Its extensive length, levels of detail, and geographic and temporal expanse give this a Tolstoyan feel. Enhanced by maps and illustrations and supported by extensive documentation, this saga will reward those who persevere.
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