Book reviews: The Finkler Question and Started Early, Took My Dog

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

Julian Treslove lacks identity. He has the sort of uninteresting handsomeness that means he ‘looks like everyone and yet no one’ which suits his current lacklustre career as a celebrity look-alike. He has been a failure as a BBC producer, and his career as lover and father is similarly nondescript.

He envies his two widowed best friends, the nonagerian Czech Libor Sevick, formerly his enterprising teacher at school who knew Marilyn Monroe, and his old schoolmate Sam Finkler, a celebrated philosopher who is invited onto Desert Island Discs, though not for their careers.

Treslove covets their right to grieve – for some bizarre reason, whenever he fancies a woman, his imagination leaps forward to the moment they die, consumptively, in his arms, preferably to the crashing final chords of La Boheme – but most of all he is consumed by jealousy for their Jewish identity, to the extent that a Finkler becomes his name for a Jew.

A mugging incident, in which Treslove may or may not be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack, jolts him out of inertia. He begins a reasonably sensible relationship with Hepzibah, Sevick’s great-niece, and pursues his immersion into Jewish culture with hilarious zeal.
The book explodes, with masterful clarity, the mix of pride and shame, and the arguments, that can splinter the Jewish community; the self-absorbed Treslove ricochets haplessly between Sevick, who is pro-Israel and finding the multitude of his griefs too much, and Finkler, who is anti and eventually loses control.

The Finkler Question seemed by far the most attractive review option of the six shortlisted titles in this year’s Man Booker Prize (see Country Life, October 6, Book Reviews) and has certainly fulfilled expectation. Every line is quotable, the dialogue dazzling, the use of language breathtakingly original and it’s very, very funny. If the Booker were only about fine writing, this would win hands down.

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson (Doubleday, £18.99)

Tracy Waterhouse is in her mid-50s, an unfulfilled, lonely, defensive ex-policewoman, when in a moment of madness she makes a life-changing purchase in a seedy shopping complex in Leeds. There is only one witness: Tilly, an elderly actress who is on the verge of senile dementia, but for whom the scene triggers a buried memory from her own tragic past.

Enter Kate Atkinson’s compelling creation, Jackson Brodie, a world-weary detective whose attractiveness somehow oozes off the page. He has been hired by New Zealander Hope McMaster, who was adopted, to find out her Leeds origins.

The social worker who handled Hope’s case is strangely reluctant to discuss it, but Tracy Waterhouse’s name is on the file and Brodie knows that somehow it’s connected with the murder of a prostitute in the 1970s. There was clearly a police cover-up and Brodie needs to speak to Tracy, but she is now on the run, and someone else is racing him to get to her.

Labelling Kate Atkinson a crime-writer does not begin to do her originality and humour justice; her characters are reflective, real and funny. In this instance, she is particularly good at conjuring the stifling corruption of a provincial police station, and the mounting paranoia which threatens to disturb their retirement years later.  

A new work by Atkinson is a treat to be is to be saved for a long train journey or afternoon by the fire, when it can be properly appreciated. Brodie, also, deserves to join the cast of cult television detectives, and this is set to happen when the six-part Case Histories hits BBC 1 in early 2011.