Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Book #13

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

A young man arrives in the Ukraine, clutching in his hand a tattered photograph. He is searching for the woman who fifty years ago saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Unfortunately, he is aided in his quest by Alex, a translator with an uncanny ability to mangle English into bizarre new forms; a "blind" old man haunted by memories of the war; and an undersexed guide dog named Sammy Davis Jr, Jr. What they are looking for seems elusive -- a truth hidden behind veils of time, language and the horrors of war. What they find turns all their worlds upside down.

It took me a while to understand the fragmented style of this novel - I almost gave up on it after only a few pages, but I am so glad I persevered. I fell in love with it, and then it broke my heart.

Half of the story is written by Alex, the translator. He doesn't have an excellent grasp of the English language, and his contributions were very quirky, amusing, and at times, extremely touching.

The other half is written by Jonathan and details the history of the village his grandfather grew up in, up until its destruction by the Nazis in 1941. These entries were usually very surreal, giving us glimpses of the past and future, of things we couldn't understand, but would come to understand in time. It's my opinion that this reflects the title - the present illuminates the past, and the past illuminates the present. It becomes quite philosophical, which can prove to be difficult to understand, but well worth it if you decide to keep at it.

I loved the humour in the novel most of all. I love a book that can make me grin like a lunatic, against my better judgement, whilst reading it in public. Everything Is Illuminated did this for me, despite the dark themes it was exploring. It was almost slapstick - Alex's hilarious ability to substitute long, difficult words for simple ones, Jonathan's unfortunate vegetarianism and the Ukranian reaction to this, there was even a blind man driving a car!

The humour contrasts with the sorrow in the novel perfectly. The last eighty pages or so are completely heartbreaking, beautiful and tragic. They put things into perspective and illuminate everything.

I've never known a book to make me laugh and cry so much. I'd recommend to anyone, but it does require a lot of perseverence. It's both hilarious and harrowing all at once, and an impressive debut novel from such a young author. I can't wait to read another of Foer's novels.

13 / 66 books. 20% done!


Sophie said...

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close broke my heart; I laughed and cried openly on the bus reading it.

Jonathan Safran Foer is such an amazing author.

ingrid said...

I just started reading this and am having similar issues getting into it, or kind of was. It's so good once you get used to it though isn't it. I remembered you had read it and so wanted to see what you thought and I'm pleased to know I wasn't alone in almost wanting to give up the first few pages in. Excited for the end now having read your review! x