Slightly confusing but beautifully written novel
At no point reading Jacob’s Room can I say I had a particularly good handle on what was going on, but I kept coming back to it all the same. It’s hard to describe the ‘plot’ as it doesn’t really have one in the traditional sense. It essentially follows the lives of Jacob Flanders and his mother. We are given snapshots (that oft overused word, not least by me) of their lives from his childhood onward. The only other Woolf that I have read is A Room of One’s Own, and Jacob’s Room felt a bit of a step from this. It is one of her earliest works, and it shows how she started to experiment with the idea of a what a novel could or should be.
More than a straightforward narrative, it is a collection of atmospheres and emotions, as we are given glimpses of people’s thoughts and feelings at any one moment. Even calling Jacob the protagonist feels a bit of a stretch, as of all the characters we meet, it is his thoughts and feelings that are most hidden from us. Other characters comment on him and his slightly mysterious nature, and he is no more open to us as readers than he is to them. He almost plays a similar function to the reader: he is the literary prompt that links and reveals the world around him and its people.
I will leave it to the droves of Woolf scholars to debate the work’s greater meaning and literary merits. For me, a simpler question: did I enjoy it? The answer is a hearty ‘yes’. The book has been described as elegiac, and it is just this poetic feel that kept me coming back for more, and in a way freed me from worrying about those baser considerations of chronology and plot. It is beautifully written, and I read it for the sake of the words themselves. It takes some adjustment, but once you have tuned yourself to the form, Jacob’s Room makes for a thoroughly rewarding read. It is almost like the literary version of that moment when you realise or are struck by (for which I know there is a German word I have forgotten) the fact that everyone else has an inner life just like you. It is the acceptance that we are all protagonists in our own stories.
If you are able to persevere through the first hesitations, I am sure that you will soon find yourself enjoying Jacob’s Room as much as I did. The evocation of the West Country coastline, Cambridge evenings, and Athens in the sunshine were sure to appeal to me, and brought back memories of the sights and smells of my own experiences. But the experience of being in these places is so wonderfully conjured that they need not be familiar to be effective.
So I recommend putting aside the next thriller on your ‘To be Read’ pile and give something quite different a try. Jacob’s Room is not an obvious choice, but it is not one you are likely to regret.
What do you think of Virginia Woolf’s writing? I know some people think of her as an acquired taste, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far. What would you recommend I read next? Are there any novels you have read that are especially evocative of a specific time or place? I love this quality in a book, so it would be great to hear your suggestions in the comments below!