The Last Samurai, published in September 2000, was written by Helen DeWitt, an author who graduated from the University of Oxford with a degree in Classics. The novel effortlessly combines different languages and cultures to tell the story of a mother and her young boy, Ludo, who through his innocence and genius, is trying to discover the identity of his father.
The novel begins by introducing the mother, Sibylla, a single mother taking care of her son, who is a product of a one night stand. Through the importance of education, the introduction of new languages and cultures into her son's life, the mother raises Ludo to become a child prodigy. By the age of three, Ludo can read in Greek, Japanese, and Hebrew.. At six years old, Ludo is skilled in complicated mathematics and many other languages. Sibylla, in an effort to provide male influence in her son's life, turns to Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which both characters watch obsessively in order to escape reality. The film eventually inspires Ludo, at only 11 years old, to embark on a journey to choose his own father. In Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, a Japanese adventure drama, a small village enlists the help of seven unemployed samurai after they are attacked by thieves, in order to help protect themselves. The 'seven samurai' in the movie represent candidates to be Ludo's father. The novel shows Ludo's character development, and he matures and switches roles with his mother, becoming the adult figure in the family. By the end of the novel, Ludo has been enlightened from his journey, learning much about life and death.
The Last Samurai highlights the importance of education and learning in a young child's life, as well as the importance of self-discovery, human ambition, and changing familial roles. Critics have stated that "DeWitt pushes against the limitations of the novel as a form" (The Paris Review), and that The Last Samurai is "an ambitious, colossal debut novel" (Publishers Weekly). The Wall Street Journal called the novel "remarkable" and The New York Times writes that it is "easy to be carried along by the tempo of [DeWitt's] prose" that will "leave you gasping for breath".
In 2001, the novel was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times' Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, as well the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2002. The Last Samurai was also longlisted for the 2001 Orange Prize for Fiction, one of the United Kingdom's most prestigious literary awards.