Literary Fiction

The Last Samurai – Helen DeWitt

28 February 2019
The Last Samurai Book Cover The Last Samurai
Helen Dewitt
Miramax Books
April 3, 2002

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


The Last Samurai is a book where you’re never quite sure where you’re going next and at what speed, you just realise it’s going to be unconventional. To make sure you remain connected to the short snappy pointed tone of the main characters the writing adopts a similar style.

Ludo is a 6-year-old language and literary genius and his mother Sibylla is also intellectually gifted. I mean seriously gifted, where they home-study mathematics, science, literature, and multiple languages including Greek, Hebrew, Japanese and Arabic. They ride the London Underground’s Circle line all day with their pushchair filled with books so they can keep warm because they can’t afford to heat their house. I couldn’t rationalise why someone with Sibylla’s intelligence and capability would be struggling to earn money in London. It will be meant as part of her quirky personality but it’s still not believable.

Sibylla sees, hears and feels the world differently to other people and the story can shoot off in unsuspecting tangents, just like the mind of Sibylla, and plunge into great detail. There is this obsession from mother and son with the 7 Samurai film in its original Akira Kurosawa version. Ludo wants to know who his father is and Sibylla categorically refuses to tell him. Over the next 6 years, Ludo decides to use a scene from the 7 Samurai film as a blueprint to map out, and identify 7 potential father figures, and determine which it is – the one who can parry the blow, just like a real Samurai could do.

Sibylla’s dilemmas and her analysis of every situation can be quite funny and there is a generally dry and black humour throughout the book. Put intellectual logic into the hands of an innocent 6-year-old boy and his engagements with other adults are really hilarious. Starting school left the teacher exasperated.

The last 40% of the book is mainly told through the eyes of Ludo and his quest to find his father. The narrative falls into a steady pace and it’s at this point you realise, what was a challenge in reading the book at the beginning, is now unfortunately missing.

At times I got frustrated with the book as it seemed to ramble and provide detail I wasn’t interested in, and I didn’t feel added to the story. Other times certain passages were so cleverly written that they were just genius. Overall it didn’t hold my interest enough and being nearly 600 pages, it was an effort. 

Many thanks to NetGalley and Random House UK, Vintage Publishing, for an ARC version of the book in return for an honest review.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley

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