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Called “remarkable” (The Wall Street Journal) and “an ambitious, colossal debut novel” (Publishers Weekly), Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai is back in print at last
Helen DeWitt’s 2000 debut, The Last Samurai, was “destined to become a cult classic” (Miramax). The enterprising publisher sold the rights in twenty countries, so “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” (Garth Risk Hallberg) And why must cultists tell the uninitiated it has nothing to do with Tom Cruise?
Sibylla, an American-at-Oxford turned loose on London, finds herself trapped as a single mother after a misguided one-night stand. High-minded principles of child-rearing work disastrously well. J. S. Mill (taught Greek at three) and Yo Yo Ma (Bach at two) claimed the methods would work with any child; when these succeed with the boy Ludo, he causes havoc at school and is home again in a month. (Is he a prodigy, a genius? Readers looking over Ludo’s shoulder find themselves easily reading Greek and more.) Lacking male role models for a fatherless boy, Sibylla turns to endless replays of Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai. But Ludo is obsessed with the one thing he wants and doesn’t know: his father’s name. At eleven, inspired by his own take on the classic film, he sets out on a secret quest for the father he never knew. He’ll be punched, sliced, and threatened with retribution. He may not live to see twelve. Or he may find a real samurai and save a mother who thinks boredom a fate worse than death.
Helen DeWitt was born in a suburb of Washington, DC. Daughter of American diplomats, she grew up mainly in Latin America, living in Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. She went to Oxford to study classics for a BA and D.Phil. She left academia to try to write a novel, moving eventually to London and acquiring UK citizenship. She had some 100 fragments of novels when she began work in 1995 on the novel that was published as The Last Samurai in 2000. The book caused a sensation at the Frankfurt Bookfair 1999, going on to be translated in 20 languages (DeWitt reads some 15 languages to various degrees of fluency). On the reissue of The Last Samurai by New Directions in 2016 it was hailed by Vulture Magazine as The Best Book of the Century. She is also the author of Lightning Rods, a Mel Brooksian satire on sexual harassment, and Some Trick, a collection of stories. She has been based in Berlin since 2004, but also spends time at a cottage in the woods of Vermont improving her chainsaw skills.