The Last Samurai, by Helen Dewitt

No, it has nothing to do with the 2003 Tom Cruise movie (which came out 3 years after this novel was released)–and that I need to make that distinction at all is an illustration of the sad state of American culture, because this book was flipping amazing and I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it until this year. 

Sibylla is an American at Oxford who, after an unfortunate one-night-stand, is left trying to raise a son on her own. She repeatedly watches the Kurosawa movie ‘Seventh Samurai’ with him, in lieu of a father figure (hence the name of the book.) She tries to follow the advise of J.S. Mill and Yo Yo Ma, who began learning very young (Mill learned Greek at 3, and Yo Yo Ma was playing Bach at 2) and starts teaching her son various languages at a very young age. To her annoyance, he learns them all too quickly and constantly wants more. By the time he’s six he has a half dozen of them. 

For anyone who is interested in linguistics, math, science, sociology, anthropology, or the idea of prodigies and geniuses, this book will be an addiction. From the start I could not put it down, it was so interesting. Not only are there tasty nuggets of learning scattered consistently throughout, but the characters are so heartbreakingly identifiable. 

Sibylla, a genius herself, who feels boredom is a fate worse than death, is stuck typing mind numbingly bland texts for a publishing house so they can be archived digitally (story takes place in the 80s I think). She does this in order to take care of her son, and also so she can keep her work permit and avoid going back to the states. But it is difficult for her, and thus she is always short of money. The first section of the book is from her perspective, and her recounting of her life up till that point, which she writes with scattered interruptions of her trying to raise her son. 

The second part of the book is told from her son, Ludo’s point of view, as he becomes obsessed with his quest to find out who his father is. 

The story is relentlessly engaging and interesting. However, you will have to endure a bit of unusual formatting and style. Apparently this is difficult for some people to do, but

A good samurai will parry the blow… 

Too often people cringe away from anything that doesn’t fit the perfectly organized box they are used to.  It’s not as odd as Lincoln in the Bardo was, but it does jump around and there are times when you have to think a bit about what you’re reading (imagine that!) That is enough to generate several one star reviews from annoyed/confused people, though. I hope you will look past them (or look for them, if you’re like me and expect every genius book to be hated by some portion of the populace) and give it a chance!

This is one of my favorite books in a long time, and definitely wins the award for ‘most engaging read’ this year. 

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3 Replies to “The Last Samurai, by Helen Dewitt”

  1. You wrote this review so well. Like seriously so well I wanna pick up a copy of the book right now =D and start reading. Also, of you liked this book I think you will like The Professor and the Housekeeper as well.

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