Something a little different today, I have two reviews of books on the shortlist for The Wingate Prize – The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated by Jennifer Croft, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin.
The Wingate Literary Prize was established in 1977 by the late Harold Hyam Wingate. It is now run in association with JW3, the Jewish Community Centre.
Now in its 46th year, the annual prize is awarded to the best book, fiction or non-fiction, to translate the idea of Jewishness to the general reader. The winner receives £4,000. The winner will be announced on the 12th of March.
Previous winners include David Grossman, Anne Michaels, WG Sebald, Zadie Smith, and Nicole Krauss.
This year’s shortlisted books are; Tomorrow and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, In The Midst of a Civilised Europe by Jeffrey Vehdlinger, The Memory Monster by Yishai Sarid, The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, Come to This Court and Cry by Linda Kinstler, The Island of Extraordinary Captives by Simon Parkin and The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land by Omer Friedlander. More information about the prize and the shortlisted books, which range from memoir to poetry to fiction, can be found here.
In the mid-eighteenth 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, 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 rumours of his sect’s secret rituals and the spread of his increasingly iconoclastic beliefs.
In The Books of Jacob, her masterpiece, 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk writes the story of Frank through the perspectives of his contemporaries, capturing Enlightenment Europe on the cusp of precipitous change, searching for certainty and longing for transcendence.
My thoughts: I chose to read this book from the shortlist as I had read the author’s previous book Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which was a strange but compelling book and I wanted to see if this had the same odd magic.
First off, this is a big book, I was reading on an e-reader but it’s still a lot. And it ambles through the interconnected lives of a huge number of people, before Jacob even enters it.
It is however fascinating and reminded me of the huge tomes of the period in which its set – big, epic books like War & Peace, or something by Dostoevsky or even by the later Charles Dickens. The story roams across Europe of the 18th Century, as Jacob does, threading his way through the lives of Christians, Jews and Muslims, leaving mysteries in his wake. It’s an incredible undertaking and the translator, Jennifer Croft, has done an incredible job of bringing it from the original Polish to an English reading audience.
The 18th Century was a time of great change, when new ideas were sweeping the world. Which makes it ripe for Jacob and his thoughts to sow discord, confusion and a certain fanaticism among the people he encounters.
A fascinating and deeply layered book, one that requires probably more than one reading to truly understand what it is that Tokarczuk has done here.
Sam and Sadie meet in a hospital in 1987. Sadie is visiting her sister, Sam is recovering from a car crash. The days and months are long there, but playing together brings joy, escape, fierce competition — and a special friendship. Then all too soon that time is over, and they must return to their normal lives.
When the pair spot each other eight years later in a crowded train station, they are catapulted back to that moment. The spark is immediate, and together they get to work on what they love – creating virtual worlds to delight, challenge and immerse, finding an intimacy in the digital realm that eludes them in their real lives. Their collaborations make them superstars.
This is the story of the perfect worlds Sadie and Sam build, the imperfect world they live in, and of everything that comes after success: Money. Fame. Duplicity. Tragedy.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow takes us on a dazzling imaginative quest, examining identity, creativity and our need to connect.
My thoughts: this book has already become a word of mouth (or should that be social media) sensation and I had already bought but not read a copy before hearing about this tour so I am just as susceptible to peer pressure as anyone else.
I am not a gamer, so I was a bit dubious about a book set in the world of video game design, I worried I’d be bored. But while the characters do indeed make video games, it’s really about their relationships. The long friendship between Sadie and Sam and their connections to Marx and what happens when tragedy strikes the trio. It’s also about family, the found family they build and the complicated families they come from.
Meeting as kids and then again as students at Harvard and MIT, Sam and Sadie have one of those friendships that’s both very intense but can also go years without speaking and then click back into place like they’ve never been apart. Video gaming brought them together and when they reconnect it does again. With Sam’s roommate Marx on board, as well as Sadie’s creepy tutor/boyfriend Dov, they set out to create a brilliant new game.
And they do, the game brings them joy and success, but needing to replicate that drives a wedge between the two. And over the next few years as they ride the wave if success and failure, their friendship suffers. When Sadie and Marx become a couple, it changes the dynamic completely.
In terms of Jewish representation, as per the prize, it isn’t overt. Sam is more Korean than Jewish, having been raised by his maternal grandparents, who aren’t Jewish, so he doesn’t really understand that part of himself. Sadie is more Jewish, indeed she wins a prize for the amount of volunteering she does for her bat mitzvah. But as an adult it doesn’t really seem to be something she’s hugely aware of. Neither of them are practising Jews and it seems more of just a cultural thing if anything. Which is interesting.
The book as a whole was an enjoyable, at times funny and then really sad read. The tragedy that rips through their lives leaves a trail of pain and misery in its wake, and something both Sam and Sadie struggle to move on from. Their friendship shifts again and perhaps will never really be the same.
*I was kindly gifted a copy of this book in exchange for taking part in the blog tour but all opinions remain my own.