Everything Is Illuminated - Jonathan Safran Foer

Once again, I've read a book selected for a book club which I won't be able to attend. This time, I discovered the scheduling conflict the day after I'd started reading it, and almost decided to set it aside and read something else instead. I'm glad I didn't. Ideally, I could just recommend this book to you and you would read it, and then come back and read my review of it afterwards and see if you agree, because anything I write will be giving something away. But at the same time, nothing I say will change the fact that the writing is good, and you'd still have the experience of reading the book. That said, if you're intrigued enough to go check it out, come back and join me here after you're done.

The story is another of these novels presented as fact: Jonathan Safran Foers is not only the author, but also a character in the book. And, according to this novel, he only wrote parts of it; the rest is written by Alex Perchov, a Ukrainian hired by Foers as a translator when he goes looking for the mysterious woman who saved his grandfather during the war. Alex's writing sounds a little like it was written in English, run through a translator into Ukrainian, and then run back into English. He describes his journey with Foers from his own point of view. Foers, for his part, writes a long-ago tale about his great-great-great-great-great-grandmother which sounds a little like a Yiddish folktale. And then Alex writes letters to Foers, commenting on the tale and responding to the never-seen letters Foers presumably sends to Alex.

Confused yet? It takes a few chapters before you get all the pieces and realize what's going on, but then it falls into a rhythm. At the same time, you also see that there's some sort of collision coming, with plenty of foreshadowing and hinting provided by both Foers and Alex. There are a few surprising twists, but most impressive is the way Foers can take things that you already know are happening and still shock you with them. It's a tragic tale that manages to be quite funny, and uses irreverence to show respect for a weighty subject.

I'm not sure where exactly on my list it falls, but it's definitely one of the best novels I've read this year. Add it to your list!

Fed to jonathan's brain | November 15, 2004