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The Books of Jacob

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, and Jennifer Croft

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  • International Booker Prize Shortlist 2022

By Olga Tokarczuk, and and, Jennifer Croft

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2 reviews

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In THE BOOKS OF JACOB, her most sweeping and ambitious novel yet, 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk follows the comet-like rise and fall of the mysterious Messianic leader Jacob Frank in Enlightenment Europe.


27 Jun 2022

Vicki Elcoate

The Books of Jacob is both physically and intellectually challenging - not just the size of it with its 900 pages, but the epic scale of events, the huge cast of characters and the geographical range. The current situation in Ukraine makes the location vivid - as we can see the characters roaming through Ukraine, Poland, Turkey, Germany and the Russians invading. Although I managed to get to the end I struggled to find it engaging - I have very mixed feelings about it.

On the positive side the descriptions are wonderful - the author can paint a picture in words that is compelling. She conjures up this 18th century Enlightenment age in a huge amount of detail. You can almost smell the markets, visualise the bustling streets, watch the not dead Yente turning into a crystal in the cave. Olga Tokarczuk presents one illustration after another of this alien yet familiar world - where people die of recognisable yet unnamed diseases, few children survive to adulthood, parents grieve and women die in childbirth. She vividly describes the huge disparities between rich and poor, the persecution of the Jews and the power of the Church.

Although the book tracks the life of Jacob Frank - an 18th century religious mystic who was born a Jew and claimed to be the Messiah - and uses a structure which mirrors the Bible, giving him a Christ like importance, it is hard to be convinced by him. He is both unattractive and pock-marked but so charismatic that his followers love him and follow him wherever he goes. He engages in repugnant practices involving young girls and is breast fed by the women followers. He orders his followers, despite already being married, to have sex with other members of the cult (including him of course), regardless of their feelings. His teachings seem to make little sense and he transitions from his Jewish origins, dabbles with Islam and ends up a Christian who spends a lot of time lying in the shape of a cross in churches. He seems to attract financial support, and great wealth, then falls foul of the Church and is in prison for 13 years. He is an enigma despite accounts of him - including his own writings - still existing. He sounds very much like a Cult leader of any age - powerful, commanding, puzzling.

Jacob's story is interwoven with many other stories. Father Chmielowski born in Lviv in Ukraine and - author of the first Polish language encyclopedia - probably occupies an even more prominent part in the book. Then there are Jacob's many disciples - who at one time take the names of the New Testament disciples. Nahman's contribution appears as "scraps" in smaller text - and prove to be crucial to the story (so don't skip them). The difficulty tracking this huge cast of characters is compounded by the name changes - from Hebrew to Polish to German. It would be so helpful to have a timeline and a character list provided (with all their aliases) and contemporary maps (overlaid with historical boundaries) of their journeys. The illustrations provided are too small to read clearly and not explained as to their relevance.

Although the novel is founded in fact, it mingles in magical realism. Yente floats in and out of the text as a dead but not dead all-seeing witness. Her cave provides a safe haven for Jews during the holocaust which the book finally arrives at after galloping through the years after Jacob's death, following up the various strands of the story.

The complexities, interweaving and constant shifting of focus make this a challenging read. It was literally a relief when Jacob was imprisoned and the focus narrowed to his cell. His relationship with the guards, his ill health and depression, his canny extrication from his situation - suddenly there seemed to be a discernible plot. My main problem with the Books of Jacob is that it's not a page turner - in the form of a picaresque novel it's all about the journeying, the people met on the way, the incidents. But no powerful story line to see you through those 900 pages.

Hats off to the translator - Jennifer Croft. She says that there were words that she translated where she didn't even know the English word she was translating to. The rich descriptions owe a lot to her work.

Would I recommend it? If you're up for a long book it needs to be compelling - the 1500 pages of Clarissa by Samuel Richardson is a thriller told in letters that you won't forget. The Books of Jacob conjures up a world, but loses the reader in the maze of characters and voices.

23 Jun 2022


The length and typeface of this book provided me with quite a challenge for reading it, but I pursued and feel more knowledgeable than I did before reading the book. The Books of Jacob is a credit to the author and translator – a mammoth challenge to bring the story of Jacob Frank to life (born 1726).
Traversing continents, timelines and characters, Jacob’s story is told through those he has connections with, above all he seems to have the ability to draw people to him and follow him whatever his beliefs. The complexities of religion, beliefs, new sects, and Messiah like power are at the forefront of the story, and I sometimes felt overwhelmed by the complexity of how religious denominations splinter, and what makes a new belief ethos take hold. In creating this new sect, Jacob faces non-believers and at times you do feel for him – accused as a heretic, blasphemer and charlatan he does not have the ability to convince everyone.
Women are treated with some discrimination throughout the story – the character Yente hovers throughout – bringing a sense of mystical presence, she is old but cannot die, some say she is a witch and 300 years old. Alongside her there is Hayah who has the ability to prophesise, both women are observers but cannot change the course of events. Jacob’s new belief and interpretation of scripture can often debase women, and even in death his only daughter has a price to pay for her fathers life.
His devotees make observations and connections, and close aide Naham recounts in his own words, the stories, mistruths and gossip surrounding Jacob Frank. Towards the latter part of the story, Jacob’s ill health and imprisonment do not quash the continued belief in his word.
The book would really appeal to those who have an interest in religion, theology, beliefs, history, and the backdrop of Poland. Like the developing story, the absorption of facts and characters takes time to develop, and a reflection afterwards brought a greater understanding.

Review by Jane

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