Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)

I think I have already mentioned that I have a thing for first novels - I am already impressed before even opening the book at the tenacity and talent it takes to get a first book published! I bought this because it was included in a special Penguin collection of important books put out in 2007 called “Penguin Celebrations” – all the books had a cool retro cover and they were really cute. I bought a few of them, and this was one that appealed to me.

The novel is about a young American writer who travels to Ukraine to search for the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazi’s. He is assisted by two Ukrainians: a young man who is a translator and his “blind” grandfather, who serves as their driver. The book is unusual in that half the chapters are actually written by the young Ukrainian translator – and let’s just say his English isn’t that great! It sounds as though the author spent a lot of time listening to Ukrainians speak English because once you get used to reading it, you can really hear Sasha speaking.

The story alternates between the three men’s journey as described by Sasha, letters from Sasha to the American discussing the writing of story and his own life, and then the novel itself, which starts with the history of the village they are searching for and the writer’s great-great-great-great-grandmother and builds up slowly to the grandfather.

Some parts of this novel made me laugh out loud – especially the scene where the American tries to tell the two Ukrainians he is a vegetarian and that this means no meat, “not even sausage” – it was so funny I read it out loud to my husband and then to my one of my kids. But much of the novel is heart wrenchingly sad and deals with extreme cruelty, intolerance, hatred and tragedy.

An excellent, creative and courageous book. One of my favorite lines in the book:

...once you hear something, you can never return to the time before you
heard it.

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