The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

DATE FINISHED: June 21st, 2012 

RATED: *****

SYNOPSIS:  Ludo is a child prodigy with a voracious thirst for knowledge; his mother, Sybilla (equally gifted), is trying to earn enough money for them to get by through mind-numbing, soul-destroying work, whilst finding the energy and inspiration to feed both of their appetites for language and literature. Sybilla tries to fill the father-shaped gap in Ludo’s life with a video of the Japanese classic, The Seven Samurai. But Ludo just wants a father, and as soon as he is old enough, determines to find one.

THOUGHTS:  At first told from Sybilla’s perspective, a torrent of thoughts and ideas are unleashed resulting in a slightly fragmented narrative mirroring the distracted concentration one imagines the harried mother of a (maddeningly voracious) child might experience. Sometimes sentences are left hanging mid-flow and completed after an unrelated narrative diversion; but DeWitt wears her obvious learning lightly, and her prose sparkles with wit. The characters are as original as her style, and while there is nothing ‘normal’ about the life they live they are nonetheless absorbing and engaging. Ludo’s experiences of school are classic.

As Ludo grows older, his voice gradually takes over the narrative, and a more linear structure emerges alongside his determination to track down if not his real father, then a substitute who meets his exacting standards. Just when the latter half of the book appears to be in danger of becoming an excuse for a catalogue of eccentric character studies (albeit entertaining ones), DeWitt draws the string on her story and a pleasingly poignant and cyclical conclusion pulls everything together.

I am perhaps most impressed by DeWitt’s ability to write a child’s eye view – which I often find quite grating – that is for once original rather than derivative. By any criteria, this novel is simply a joy to read, with a wonderful free-flowing stream-of-consciousness style that is quite unlike anything else out there. More importantly, while DeWitt’s voice is uniquely her own, she has crafted a strong, touching story, peopled with strong, touching characters to substantiate that style. I love it.

FOLLOWING ON:  For more witty, wordy, stream-of-consciousness style, try the equally wonderful Duchess of Nothing by Heather McGowan.  A completely different variation of the child prodigy theme can be found in Prodigy by Nancy Huston.

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