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.