cover image The Books of Jacob

The Books of Jacob

Olga Tokarczuk, trans. from the Polish by Jennifer Croft. Riverhead, $35 (992p)

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. (Feb.)