Mogul’s Mystery Gift, Lethal African Oil, Woman Mugs Man: Books

The cover jacket of "The Finkler Question." The book is by Howard Jacobson. Source: Bloomsbury via Bloomberg

We might as well start with the mugging.

Julian Treslove, the hero of Howard Jacobson’s new novel, is walking back to his London apartment at 11:30 at night when he’s attacked. By a woman. She springs from the shadows, grabs Julian by the neck and slams his face into the window of a violin store. As she strips away his valuables, Julian thinks he hears her call him “you Jew.”

This is, oddly enough, the moment he has been waiting for.

As “The Finkler Question” opens, Julian, a lackluster BBC radio producer turned celebrity lookalike, has just met two old friends for dinner and bittersweet reminiscences. One is Sam Finkler, a famed pop philosopher who, like Julian, is about to turn 50. They’ve been friends -- or friendly adversaries -- since their schooldays. The third man is their former history teacher, a Czech emigre named Libor Sevcik.

Sam and Libor have recently become widowers. Though Julian never married, he nurses fantasies of falling for a dying woman and feels their pain exquisitely. Tragic love -- indeed tragedy, period -- is his calling, he believes. Yet until this evening it eluded him: A falling tree once crushed someone walking half a yard behind him, he kvetches; a crazed gunman on the underground was in the next carriage.

Now the longed-for calamity is upon him, and it brings the bonus of a religious slur. You Jew? Julian is as goyish as can be. Yet in his bruised mortification -- “A woman manhandled me,” he says -- Julian decides to convert to Judaism. Jewish suffering will bring purpose to his life, he thinks as the novel evolves into a mordantly comic exploration of anti-Semitism.

“The Finkler Question” is in the running for this year’s Man Booker Prize. Should Jacobson make the cut when finalists are announced tomorrow, it will be long overdue for a novelist whose cerebral humor has tended to unnerve judges.

The book is from Bloomsbury (320 pages, 18.99 pounds).


Andy Larkham would probably be late for his own funeral. He’s certainly late for the cremation of a beloved high-school teacher.

Hastening through the London drizzle, Andy misreads his rain-splotched invitation and arrives belatedly at the wrong chapel. His reward? 17 million pounds ($26.2 million).

Two meanings of the word fortune collide in Nicholas Shakespeare’s new novel, “Inheritance,” which pivots on the blessings and curses of chance and wealth.

The man whose death Andy mistakenly mourns is Christopher Madigan, a loner who became a millionaire overnight after stumbling upon vast reserves of iron ore in Australia. Having decided to “leave his fortune to fortune,” Madigan wills that his estate be divided between whoever attends his funeral -- his aged housekeeper and Andy, as it turns out.

Playboy Lifestyle

For Andy, 27 years old and toiling in a junior publishing job, everything changes. Suddenly he can afford to buy books in hardback, take cabs and move into a bijou mews home.

His legacy amounts to more than Madigan’s wealth. As a friend points out, “You inherited his story as well.”

So Andy, tiring of his playboy lifestyle, sets out to discover the man behind the millions, unearthing a tale of roots, reinvention and exile that begins in Turkey’s Armenian community in the early 20th century.

This is Shakespeare’s sixth novel, and though romance snakes in the background, his understated prose minimizes his usual sentimental streak.

“Inheritance” is from Harvill Secker (272 pages, 12.99 pounds).

‘Oil on Water’

The allure of a scoop is what propels the narrator of Helon Habila’s “Oil on Water.”

Rufus, a rookie reporter on a provincial Nigerian daily, has signed up for an assignment with his hero, Zaq, a once-famous investigative reporter. Their task: to find the wife of a British oil engineer, kidnapped by militants protesting the ecological impact of the petroleum industry.

The trail leads deep into the oil-rich regions of the Niger Delta, where tribal villages are trapped in the crossfire between rebels and the military. Pollution is endemic, and the night sky glows orange with the flares from refineries, luring locals with promises of oil dollars and flat-screen TVs.

This third novel lacks the mesmerizing intensity of Habila’s debut, “Waiting for an Angel,” which won the esteemed Caine Prize for African Writing in 2001. Yet “Oil on Water” does move at a thrillerish pace, deftly humanizing the region’s lethal politics. As Rufus comes of age, he must confront the reality that Zaq has become a hack who drank away his reputation. In the end, it’s Rufus who must tell their story.

“Oil on Water” is from Hamish Hamilton (224 pages, 12.99 pounds).

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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