Book Review: The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk

The Books of Jacob – Olga Tokarczuk (Riverhead Books, 2022)

It is, I think, a testament to Olga Tokarczuk’s writing that I undertook to read The Books of Jacob at all. I loved her novel Drive Your Plough Over the Bones of the Dead and she won the Nobel Prize for Literature shortly after I raved about it here (I’m sure the committee reads my blog). When I heard her latest book was about a historical novel about a real figure who claimed to be a messiah, my interest was definitely piqued. I knew the book was large but didn’t realize how large until I picked up my hold at the library.

Friends, this book is 965 pages long. I had 2 weeks to read it before I had to return it for the next patron. And I did it! I carefully divided the number of pages (which are numbered intentionally backward) by the number of days I had and for 2 weeks I read diligently. In the end, it was both worth it and, perhaps, a better way to read this dense and thoughtful novel.

The story is set mostly in and around Poland in the 17th century. There are a lot of different characters but central to the action of the story is Jacob Frank, a man who for decades draws followers to him, seemingly casting a sort of spell of charisma and intrigue. Jacob is Jewish, as are his followers, but blasphemously he claims to be the Messiah that the Jews have so long waited for. This alienates him from both the larger Jewish community and the ruling Christian communities that surround them. But Jacob’s following is also loyal and it is growing.

Tokarcuzk deftly guides us through years of information and history, of geography and language. She uses a myriad of characters, using Jacob’s followers and detractors, as well as other witnesses, including Jacob’s not-quite-dead great-grandmother, to bring this part of history to life. The story is fantastical and yet feels grounded in reality. How much are we to believe? How much does Jacob expect his followers to believe? These are some of the questions that keep the reader enthralled.

This is a region and time period I’m not largely familiar with but I never felt overly lost as I followed Tokarczuk, a true testament to her writing. This also being a translation, applause surely goes to Jennifer Croft who brings us the English translation. Reflective of time and place, the characters speak multiple languages and one town close to another might speak an entirely different tongue. Croft and Tokarczuk capture these shifts beautifully, maintaining the rhythms of various languages while somehow also making it clear when these languages change.

It is a big book and it probably helps to be interested in religious history. In the end, I think it actually aided me to read it in a relatively short timeframe because it kept all the characters and settings fresh in my mind. I know this book won’t be for everyone but if it intrigues you at all, I certainly recommend giving it a try.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk”

  1. Interesting! I know some of my religious readers have mentioned that they don’t read religious fiction because they find it disrespectful, and other religious readers get a good feeling from it. Not being a religious person, I don’t mind either way — mostly I struggle with historical fiction, religious or not. What is your overall feeling about historical religious fiction?

    Also, good on you for giving yourself little assignments to finish the book in time. I used to do that, but my summer has been in absolute shambles so far. I need to get back to it when things are normal again.

    1. You were my inspiration for setting myself reading assignments! Anytime I put post-its in a book to show where I’m going to read to, I think of you!

      Personally, I love books that deal with historic religion – like church history and religious figures etc. My personal line is books that fictionalize the life of Jesus. I’ve yet to read one that doesn’t feel disrespectful or inaccurate to me. Adding fictional aspects to the life of King David or John the Baptist or Martin Luther is really different to me than an author adding to the life of Jesus, if that makes sense. This book has Christian church history in it but it’s predominant focus is on Judaism so I felt a bit more removed from it. Jewish readers might feel differently.

    2. OH! And the book Lou and I were talking about fictionalized the life of Jesus, so there you are. It’s typically those missing years that I’ve read about that authors attempt to cover.

    3. Yes, I was just coming to the comments to say that I feel very differently about books to do with church history than I do books that fictionalise Jesus’s life. Especially books that give him a wife, which is theologically problematic in my view for a host of reasons. I haven’t enjoyed the historical fiction about other biblical figures that I’ve read, but that’s different from finding it disrespectful. This book sounds very interesting!

    4. I can only think of a couple books I’ve read that fictionalize Biblical characters. I haven’t loved those either but it’s harder for me to pinpoint why. I agree though that any book that attempts to depict Jesus with a wife is an automatic won’t read for me.

    5. I enjoyed Moses, Man of the Mountain by Zora Neale Hurston because she makes a connection between that group and African Americans and slavery during her lifetime.

    6. I actually learn more about the Bible through fiction stories like Moses, Man of the Mountain because the author has really humanized these characters and given them joy and woes, but also because I am approaching the fiction as a non-religious curious person.

    7. I think fiction can be a great way to bring some of those Biblical characters to life. I don’t have a problem with humanizing them but it bugs me if authors add a lot to the story or ignore important bits.

  2. Haha, well done on influencing the Nobel Committee – they desperately need someone with good taste to select the winners! 😀 This one does interest me, though the size may well mean I never get to it. Have you “met” blogger Julé at Gallimaufry? She read this one over several weeks and did a series of posts on different aspects of it as she went along, and you might find them interesting. Here’s the post from when she began it…

    1. That would be an interesting way to to review it too! It’s very immersive and there’s so much historical background you can really dive very deeply in.

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