Helen DeWitt's extraordinary debut, The Last Samurai, centers on the relationship between Sibylla, a single mother of precocious and rigorous intelligence, and her son, who, owing to his mother's singular attitude to education, develops into a prodigy of learning. Ludo reads Homer in the original Greek at 4 before moving on to Hebrew, Japanese, Old Norse, and Inuit; studying advanced mathematical techniques (Fourier analysis and Laplace transformations); and, as the title hints, endlessly watching and analyzing Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece, The Seven Samurai. But the one question that eludes an answer is that of the name of his father: Sibylla believes the film obliquely provides the male role models that Ludo's genetic father cannot, and refuses to be drawn on the question of paternal identity. The child thinks differently, however, and eventually sets out on a search, one that leads him beyond the certainties of acquired knowledge into the complex and messy world of adults.
The novel draws on themes topical and perennial--the hothousing of children, the familiar literary trope of the quest for the (absent) father--and as such, divides itself into two halves: the first describes Ludo's education, the second follows him in his search for his father and father figures. The first stresses a sacred, Apollonian pursuit of logic, precise (if wayward) erudition, and the erratic and endlessly fascinating architecture of languages, while the second moves this knowledge into the world of emotion, human ambitions, and their attendant frustrations and failures.
The Last Samurai is about the pleasure of ideas, the rich varieties of human thought, the possibilities that life offers us, and, ultimately, the balance between the structures we make of the world and the chaos that it proffers in return. Stylistically, the novel mirrors this ambivalence: DeWitt's remarkable prose follows the shifts and breaks of human consciousness and memory, capturing the intrusions of unspoken thought that punctuate conversation while providing tantalizing disquisitions on, for example, Japanese grammar or the physics of aerodynamics. It is remarkable, profound, and often very funny. Arigato DeWitt-sensei. --Burhan Tufail
Spotlight customer reviews:
Customer Rating: Summary: Masterful and entertaining novel Comment: Although much has been said already in the glowing reviews this book has justly gotten, I want to add my own voice to the chorus of praise. Helen De Witt's late debut (it's not polite to point out a lady's age but one can say most writers debut quite earlier than she did) is one of the most entertaining novels I have read in a long time.
The book is about Sybilla, an American single mother eking out an existence in London as a transscriber of old magazines while at the same time trying to deal with having a miraculously smart child, Ludo. Since Ludo lacks a father, she raises him on countless viewings of Akira Kurosawa's masterwork "The Seven Samurai", as well as spending her little income on buying second-hand books on languages, physics, astronomy and other subjects. Ludo masters all these things at a shockingly young age; so much so in fact that his short attempt to attend an actual school is a dismal failure. As he grows up though, Ludo wants to find out who his father is, hoping to find a rolemodel in him as well as a support for his often despondent and potentially suicidal mother, for whom "boredom is a fate worse than death".
The book traces Ludo's quest for his father and the various odd and over the top characters that he considers, while at the same time describing the intense bond between a single mother and her son. De Witt's writing is highly inventive and original and makes maximal use of page layout and changes in pace and style, without this becoming a gimmick like it does with Danielewski. Although the mother Sybilla is unabashedly based on herself, the way De Witt captures the mind of the strong-willed wunderkind is definitely the best characterization in the book, and this alone makes it worth reading. Add to that the solid structure of the book (I don't understand why some reviewers found this meandering, when it's more compact and structured than most famous 19th century novels put together), the inspiring erudition of the various interludes on linguistics, foreign lands, physics, astronomy, and Kurosawa, and finally the unpredictability and novelty of the book as a whole, and you have a definite masterpiece. If it is true that a writer's first book is usually one of their weaker ones, then we have a enormous talent in Helen De Witt. Customer Rating: Summary: genius-or not? Comment: i started this book a few days ago and ate it like candy---nearly half the book in one day! i'm at a stand still though, for a Review....while i love the book"s premise---SingleMother/Smart Kid ...i have to wonder...Sibylla seems to be a frustrated Genius who"s trying like hell to make her son into something she could never be..and He has the potential she never had. is she Crazy? aren't all Geniuses crazy? i"m having a hard time getting through the last half of the book ...since Ludo is no longer a Child and has found out who his father is...i love this book for the Challenge-and not just the Greek/Japanese/Esoterica...the challenge of bringing Myself into this reading experience...does that make sense to anyone but me...and am i in the wrong Space here???help me, am i crazy,too..i'll post more as i finish this wondrous,scary book...WORD, here Customer Rating: Summary: Good reading, once the horizon has stabilised Comment: This book is certainly a virtuoso performance. The only problem in such cases, is that sometimes the display of virtuosity can seem to become an end in itself, as with John Fowles's later works (i.e. all of them except the first). Here, fortunately, as with Dorothy Dunnett's Lymond series, the style settles down once the author has got this out of her system.
I was reminded of Nancy Mitford's equally hilarious The Blessing, because both that book and this are about precocious children (and how utterly unprepared the average adult is to deal with them); although they actually have little else in common, except that each is first rate in its way...
Anyway, I recommend this book to you, not because it's clever, but because it's extremely entertaining.
And a bonus: however much you may know about the dialogue in Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, at the end of this opus you will know even more (perhaps more than you wanted to know, but that's another matter). Customer Rating: Summary: Some of my foavourite people are obsure single mothers Comment: This book reminds you that if you find yourself poor, and a single parent with a dead end job, you can still be the most interesting and intriguing person on the planet. Its the story of two humble people living the life of the mind. Customer Rating: Summary: enamoringly eloquent Comment: A swath of the life of a boy prodigy and his mother. A love of languages and grammer and words is a must in order to appreciate the fine nuances of the writing. This book is among the most entrancing you will read for a long time.