Susan Coll

Book Review
‘Live A Little’ by Howard Jacobson

Language is failing Beryl Dusinbery. She is 99 years old and having trouble retrieving words. “One minute she has a word, then she hasn’t. Where does it go?” Conversely, Shimi Carmelli, 91, can’t forget. “Selective morbid hyperthymesia,” he calls it. One burdensome memory in particular refuses to recede.

Live a Little, Howard Jacobson’s 16th novel, is ostensibly a love story about these two nonagenarians, who live across from one another on North London’s Finchley Road. But its themes have less to do with romance than with humiliation and regret, privilege and bad parenting, a temperamental prostate and, above all, words. Those themes have run through Jacobson’s novels (and his columns for the British newspaper The Independent) from retellings of Genesis and the Shylock story to the contemporary The Finkler Question. This new book is classic Jacobson: smart and quippy, full of literary allusions and mined with barbs. 

The cover art features skeins of hearts and skulls, and the latter ought to serve as a trigger warning. Beryl is no sweet old lady; she’s self-absorbed, nasty, racist and verbally abusive to the two long-suffering caregivers who dutifully tolerate her offensive behavior. She refers to one as a “Russian whore” and hypothesizes that the other has bad posture because she’s from Africa and “It’s what comes of eating lizards and carrying baskets of bananas on their heads.” Sometimes Beryl falls down just to give them something to do. “I see it as a favor,” she says. “It increases their job satisfaction.”

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