Books: The Burdens Of Genius

A dazzling novel about a child prodigy explores the power of myths, mathematics and Kurosawa films

In literature as in life, a fine line often separates the ambitious from the merely pretentious. In her dazzling debut novel, The Last Samurai (Talk Miramax Books/Hyperion; 530 pages; $24.95), Helen DeWitt walks this line with the utmost confidence. Describing the book, however--a work that covers decades, spans oceans, has sections in Japanese, Greek and Old Norse, and touches on chess strategy and Laplace transformations, whatever they are--may be tricky, so hang on tight.

Sibylla is a single mother in London with a surplus of brains but a deficit of funds and support. Her son Ludo--the result of a one-night stand...

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