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Book review: Jacob's Folly, By Rebecca Miller

This thoughtful fantasia of a novel juggles past and present – and faith and doubt

The eponymous Jacob was born Jacob Cerf in the Jewish quarter of Paris in the 1740s, and died as Johann Gebeck - actor, wit, debauché, and complete bastard (his own assessment) - in 1773. The last illumination he sees before he expires is a six-branched candelabrum, "encrusted with light green leaves, tiny pink roses, and cherubim".

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This baroque vulgarity was presented to him by the man who transformed his life; the impotent and doomed Comte de Villars. Perhaps if he had been contemplating a seven-branched menorah when he breathed his last, Johann né Jacob might not have been reincarnated in Long Island, 300 years later, as a fly.

His many-faceted eye makes him an excellent observer of this brave new world, though one cannot help but wonder just how these observations are actually transmitted. Needless to say, Jacob is no mere fly-on-the-wall. His role is more intrusive; Beelzebubian even.

He takes it upon himself to act as a match-maker on behalf of orthodox Masha Edelman (who could, perhaps, be a distant cousin of Shalom Auslander), and Leslie Senzatimore, an amateur fireman and full-time boat-builder with a Noah Complex (salvation is his game). The fact that Leslie is already married - and gentile - is but a goad to the devilish insect, whose aim is to disrupt harmony, to create havoc rather than happiness.

As he works he becomes a surrogate for the author, whose job is also to make mischief (and repair it too sometimes). Just why he wants to win souls for the opposition is not entirely clear. Perhaps he just wants further evidence for his nihilism, further justification for his pre-fly decision to turn his back on his religion. Not that being a Jew was such a bonus in pre-revolutionary Paris: Jacob lives in a tenement, and spends his days peddling knives and trinkets from a tray around his neck, in the manner of an old-fashioned usherette. He is married to a child-bride who seems to have been possessed by a sexually rapacious dybbuk after a near-death experience in the Seine (think Sissy Spacek circa Carrie).

Who could blame him when he accepts the offer of an aristocrat to exchange his prison cell (jailed for the possession of stolen property and resisting arrest) for a role in his household? Whereupon Jacob - like one of Horatio Alger's prototypes - undergoes a process of cut-price enlightenment and a name change. Alas, the aristocrat's motives are not entirely altruistic; in fact, he has made a bet that he can transform a Jew into a Frenchman by way of intellectual nourishment and baptism (an act regarded by Jacob et al with complete cynicism). A big mistake, according to this novel by Rebecca Miller (the playwright Arthur Miller's daughter) ; a folly indeed.

For Jacob's return as an insect suggests that such caustic indifference is unfounded, that the Universe does - at the very least - possess a Master of Ceremonies. And so as Jacob's two lives unravel in tandem, it becomes clear - despite the gap of three centuries - that there are repetitions and echoes. It also seems to be the case that sticking to traditional Judaism might not be such a bad option. Jacob's wrong choices find concrete expression in one of the count's jeux d'esprit: he causes to have raised on his country estate - the Château de Villars - a pyramid, which is functionless, purposeless, and empty of all content (a bit like the Millennium Dome). Introducing it to his cronies he names it Jacob's Folly, in honour of the Israelites who supposedly built the original, but we - the readers - know of Jacob's other follies.

As if denying the God of his fathers weren't folly enough, he beds the equivalent of Mrs Potiphar (the count's mistress) as soon as she makes herself available, demonstrating his complete naturalisation. But it seems to me that not only is the count's bet being played out in Miller's book, but also Pascal's wager that God exists. If so, He has the benefit of a very eloquent and inventive spokeswoman.

Clive Sinclair's 'True Tales of the Wild West' is published by Picador