The Jacob who gives his name to the title of Rebecca Miller’s latest novel is Jacob Cerf, ‘ex-peddler, born in a tenement’. Through wile and a bit of luck, Jacob moves through Parisian society, leaving his Jewish family to work in service for the Comte de Villars. Jacob dies at the age of 31 in the year 1773 but is then returned to the world, reincarnated in present day New York from where he relates his story.
Jacob believes he has returned as an angel, sent to watch over the other two main characters in the novel. It’s not long before Jacob’s notion is disabused:
I was standing on a mirror. I stared into it, yearning to see an image of myself, but, where, my form should have been, all was dark. Was I casting a shadow? Filled with hope, I took off, my wings propelling me back slightly before I rose, circling the mirror, and looking into it. All I could see was the luminous box, the girl’s profile, the ceiling with its gray square tiles, and a fly, zigzagging back and forth through the air. I was still invisible. I yearned to see myself…Now, with no reflection to confirm my existence, I felt claustrophobic, suffocated, erased. Desperate, I beat my wings and rose up; flight soothed me. The fly in the mirror rose. I let myself sink a bit; so did the fly. I landed on the mirror and watched the glass go dark, felt the cool of it on my feet. I was a fly! I wept with rage and helplessness.
The girl referred to in the quotation is Masha Edelman, a 21-year-old Torah Jew. Masha is in hospital when Jacob discovers her. Without the boundaries of home, she is gorging on popular films and once she’s released from hospital, it’s not long before she’s sneaking off to acting classes and pushing some of the rules of her religion to see how far they’ll bend. Jacob recognises this desire in her and attempts to influence her through the connection he has with her mind.
Our other lead character is Leslie Senzatimore, husband, father to a young, deaf son, sharing living space with his step-son and his partner and baby as well as having his parents-in-law nearby. Leslie has spent his life wanting to help people, a desire that stems from two childhood incidents: rescuing a cat from the loft of a neighbour and discovering his father’s body hanging in the garage.
Unlike Masha, who Jacob thinks is corruptible and therefore, good fun, Leslie is boring. Jacob decides he’ll liven things up for him, again by planting ideas and images in Leslie’s mind.
At this point, I have to confess that I was not a fan of Miller’s previous novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee but when early reviews of Jacob’s Folly started flying about (sorry), I was intrigued enough to give it a read. And I’m glad I did.
The concept of having a fly narrating the novel sounds ridiculous but it works. Some suspension of disbelief is required as Miller allows Jacob the fly to enter Masha and Leslie’s minds but largely, unless otherwise reminded, I forgot that I was being spoken to by an insect.
Miller’s writing is engrossing. It has a filmic quality to it that creates vivid pictures of character and action. Take the first time we meet Leslie:
Reliable, true Leslie Senzatimore stood on his square of new-mown grass at the cusp of dawn, planted his feet apart, leaned back, and aimed a glistening arc of piss straight over the fading moon. The heavenly body glowed, lassoed by his steaming ribbon, and maybe even claimed by a man who, at forty-four, had every reason to be content.
But what’s really impressive about Jacob’s Folly is the way Miller tells us three individual’s stories, all interesting in their own way, while considering the themes of desire and free will. Masha (and Jacob, in a slightly different way) are controlled by their religion and its rules, rituals and other people’s reaction to their faith. Leslie, average American male, seemingly has free will but are we really free from the events of our childhood?
Jacob’s Folly is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. The lives of three characters, vividly envisaged 250 years apart, in two of my favourite cities make this an engaging page-turner. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Thanks to Canongate for the review copy.