The Last Samurai

I’m not entirely sure where I learned about Helen DeWitt — from blogs of course, but I can’t remember which ones — but she’s been on my mind lately because of her good showing in this year’s Tournament of Books. I thought The Last Samurai might be a better place to start than the most recent Lightning Rods, though. What a fun book it turned out to be! It’s over 500 pages, but a fast read and very absorbing. It tells the story of a mother and son living in London, both of whom are brilliant, but the son, Ludo, is particularly so, and the mother, Sibylla, doesn’t quite know how to handle him. He has a desperate hunger to know things, and is studying Greek and other languages at the age most children are barely ready for Sesame Street. At the novel’s beginning, he wants Sibylla to teach him Japanese, inspired by her obsessive rewatching of Kurosawa’s film The Last Samurai. For her part, she is struggling, both because money is very tight, and because she needs time to do the typing that brings in what money she has. It’s hard to find time, though, when Ludo constantly asks questions and begs to be taught more — and more and more.

What I liked particularly about the book is the style: DeWitt captures the craziness of Sibylla’s and Ludo’s experiences by throwing it all out on the page. There are pages where the sentences go back and forth at a dizzying pace between Sibylla’s thoughts and Ludo’s questions, or between a description of The Last Samurai and Ludo’s questions, or between comments they get from strangers as they ride the Circle Line all day to keep warm and Sibylla’s thoughts and Ludo’s questions. There is also a lot of Greek and Japanese and other languages in the pages, as well as numbers and math formulas. The novel has so much energy that it threatens to overrun its boundaries at times, both because it’s frequently breaking out into other languages and different fonts and because it’s constantly veering off into different stories. As Ludo grows older, he becomes more and more curious about his father and asks Sibylla more and more insistently to tell him who he is. Sibylla refuses, so Ludo goes on a quest to find him, or to find someone worthy of being him. Part of this quest is discovering stories of brilliant, adventurous, potential father-figures, and these stories become part of the novel.

It’s here that the novel faltered the only time; in the second half of the book, the narration settled down into a pattern that threatened to get dull. But only threatened — the energy and humor of the writing saved it, as did the relationship between Sibylla and Ludo and the fondness I had for Ludo throughout the whole book.

I think the thing I like best about the book is the great sense of openness it has. Even though Sibylla frequently feels harried and trapped by her situation, she’s able to offer Ludo so much intellectual possibility and so much freedom that it’s satisfying to watch him figure out the world and begin to make his way in it. He struggles with boredom, frustration, and uncertainty, but he also has great resourcefulness to match his intelligence. It’s a pleasure to watch him take on the world.

11 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

11 responses to “The Last Samurai

  1. Thanks for a delightful review of this book. I read it when it first came out and now have almost lost all the details except the persona of a child with a brilliant mind and his devoted mother trying to raise him all by herself, quenching his thirst for knowledge in all fields. Like you, I’d enjoyed Dewitt’s ‘avant garde’ style of writing. I’m glad you’re fond of Ludo and his relationship with his mother. I adore these two characters… I admit they are rare examples for me, unlike some that I’d a hard time trying to like (just my personal feeling I guess). Two came to mind in particular: Room and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which may well have traces of The Last Samurai. Now that you’ve refreshed my memory, I must reread it and go onto DeWitt’s newer works.

  2. I’ve never read this one. Now I’m intrigued.

  3. What fun this sounds! I am very interested in Lightning Rods and never thought that she would have other books. I’ll have to add this one to my list too!

  4. Arti — I’m glad you liked the review! I haven’t read the two books you mention, but based on what I’ve heard about them, your comparison seems apt. It’s interesting that DeWitt was able to create much more likable characters than the other authors. Definitely the relationship in her novel works well. I love the way she gives him so much freedom, and he is able to handle it responsibly.

    Lilian — I’d definitely be interested to hear what you think!

    Stefanie — I hope you enjoy it! I’m keeping an eye out for Lightning Rods in my library, although I don’t think they’ve ordered it yet. From what I hear, the two books are VERY different.

  5. I was just thinking yesterday that I really should pull this one off the shelf; I was recently discussing Lightning Rods with another reader and was reminded of how impressed I was — and surprised, because I’d been expecting to find it was something like what you’ve described here. I’m really looking forward to this one now though, and doubly pleased to hear that you’ve enjoyed it so much,

  6. Heather

    Reading this post made me wonder why this book wasn’t already on my TBR list – I’m sure I’ve read about it elsewhere recently, but I guess wherever I read about it didn’t make it sound as appealing as you do! After reading Ali Smith’s There But for The recently I’ve been in the mood for another book with a really distinctive/vibrant/engaging style, and this book sounds like it might fit the bill.

  7. I’m so glad you reviewed this as I really want to read Lightning Rods, and, similarly to you, thought I might look for her previous novels first. I know I can get a cheap copy of The Last Samurai, and it helps enormously to have your thoughts on it – very encouraging ones, too!

  8. bookgazing

    Great description of a book having so much energy. I imagine it as a really excited puppy, on its way to growing into a dog and so keen to explore just what it can do with its new size.

  9. Buried in Print — I hope you do like it when you get to The Last Samurai! She’s definitely an author to follow.

    Heather — it will definitely fit the bill. I just finished that Smith novel, and I liked it, although not as much as The Accidental. It didn’t quite hold together for me in quite the same way. But she’s still an author I like very much.

    Litlove — I’m glad my post was useful! I’d love to hear what you make of DeWitt — this novel has such an interesting mother/son relationship.

    Bookgazing — what a good analogy! :)

  10. This is one of my favorite novels. I’m so happy people are reading it and that you enjoyed it so much. Nice review.

  11. Thanks, Richard. Perhaps I learned about the novel from you!

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