The Mysterious Mr Jacob : Diamond Merchant, Magician and Spy by John Zubrzycki
Transit Lounge Publishing, 2017. ISBN 9780995359437
(Age: 16+) This story, claimed by William Dalrymple to be 'one of the most exciting narrative histories to come out of India', is indeed utterly fascinating. Set in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the story is centred on Alexander Malcolm Jacob, who arrived in Bombay in 1865. His parentage is unknown, seemingly because he mostly tended to claim different stories at different stages of his life. It is not a light narrative, its stories often complex and their 'truth' quite often questionable, yet it is, at times, so mysteriously fantastic that it seems as if he could have been a character in a fictional fantasy.
Jacob became well-known in his own world of commerce, in the Indian world of the time, particularly through his diamond-dealing, the stones he sourced often being worth millions. However, he was also known as a great magician, his complex tricks often being challenged as impossible, therefore judged to be real magic, and therefore unacceptable. As there appeared to be many for whom the tricks were too difficult to comprehend, he was ironically criticized for this very complexity, judged to be too close to real magic for the audience, who ranged from the wider European community of expatriates and those from the world of the Middle East, as it was known at the time.
Keeping to the narrative genre, Zubrycki creates a believable and indeed mysterious character whose fabulous wealth and control of his world seem to have been impossible, given his background. Indeed, it is this aspect that was so referred to so often in the work by his critics. His capacity to create apparent magic, the strength of his personality, his persuasive powers, his ability to buy and sell works of art, particularly fabulous jewels, made him renowned across British India, and abroad. He is said to have bought diamonds from Australia, to have had friends in many countries, to have worked impossible sleights of hand that could not be analysed, which added to his mystery, and yet, before he lost his wealth, status and friends, he appears to have been charismatic, mysterious and to have been a consummate magician. He was interviewed by pragmatic journalists, and even these non-believers wrote that there was something unreal about this man's powers.
It would be a suitable book for older adolescents, as an informative and challenging account of an unusual man. However, I would suggest that this is not a book for younger readers because of its subject, its complexity, its literary/historical nature, its references to the real world of the Raj, and India in this historical period (comprehensible with an understanding of India's complex history), and because of the unresolved, and indeed mysterious aspects that are part of its complexity.