Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I’d heard about this book in about a million places, all of them highly recommending it, so it was with some expectations that I finally got it home and dug in. There are two narratives running through this novel, told in two starkly different voices. Alex is a Ukranian youth stuck at home wishing for a better life. His story is told in fabulously distorted English, with any and every possible alternative selected from the thesaurus apparently at random. Intertwined with this is the novel written by the other main character, Jonathan.

It’s a complex narrative structure, but one that works well. Alex’s story is about Jonathan’s trip to the Ukraine to find the woman that saved his Grandfather from the holocaust, while Jonathan’s novel is the story of the village he and Alex are trying to find, starting way back in the mists of time. Slowly and inexorably they move to a shared endpoint, one that is revealed as inevitable and unavoidable.

Alex’s story is pretty tough to get into, primarily because of the language – like Riddley Walker, Trainspotting or A Clockwork Orange it takes a long time to pick up his use of words and make easy sense of what he’s saying. It’s a neat trick though; it hides Alex’s insight – initially making him appear naive and simple. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny – mangled it may be but to a native English speaker it frequently makes you actually have to put the book down through laughing. Slowly throughout the novel though, through his exchanges with Jonathan, Alex’s language becomes clearer and his character, his complexity and the reality of his tale all start to come through. As the novel drives forward and the two tales get closer together we begin to realise that it’s not the all-American Jewish novelist who has all the smarts and that Alex, not Jonathan, is really the storyteller of the two.

The counterpoint to Alex’s tale is Jonathan’s novel, revealed in stages as he sends it to Alex for him to read and review. It’s easy to call this story Marquez-lite; so easy in fact that I’m going to. It’s a simple tale of village folk, spanning hundreds of years of the village’s life. Highly reminiscent of the tales told in One Hundred Years of Solitude it has all the trappings – weird fables, strange religion and magical characters. There’s nothing particularly original in it but, that said, its development and narrative is vital to the power of the ending of the book.

This is one of those books that you start very slowly but after about half way through you can’t put it down. Everything comes to a head as Jonathan’s novel reaches the recent past and Alex’s story leads them to a village that could be the one they’re looking for…

I don’t really want to say much about the end of the book. It becomes very clear fairly early on that the shared endpoint of the stories will be the armies of the Third Reich reaching the Ukraine. Suffice to say that the reader is treated to an incredibly sensitive and incredibly powerful final act. One that left me moved for days afterwards. This book literally has it all; it makes you laugh, it makes you cry and it makes you wait. I absolutely loved it and not one review I read or heard beforehand did it justice. True quality.