15 Down, 37 Left (52 Weeks, 52 Books)

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated is not your average Holocaust novel. In fact, you don’t really realise it is one until halfway through the novel. Our (Jewish) writer hero – coincidentally named Jonathan Safran Foer – is in Ukraine to search for the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather during WWII. Aided by his translator Alex (with his peculiarly archaic brand of English), Alex’s grandfather (also Alex) is their driver, even though he thinks he’s blind, and finally Sammy Davis Jr Jr, their seeing eye bitch.

It starts out funnily enough as a comic farce, with all the attendant travails of a fish-out-of-water tale. Especially hilarious is the conversation they have Jonathan tries to explain that he doesn’t eat meat. But as we get closer to finding the mysterious Augustine, Foer deftly weaves in a different register and tone, gradually injecting pathos and poignancy we end with an almost entirely different novel from what we started with.

A clever piece of metafiction, Foer tells the story in flashback, structured as a series of correspondences between Alex and Jonathan, after they’ve gone their separate ways. Jonathan sends Alex chapters from his novel-in-progress, inspired directly by his own Ukrainian ancestry and family history, while Alex sends his opinions as well as his own hilarious attempt at writing – in his case, about their road trip in search of Augustine. Even though Alex’s English never really improves, Foer manages to perfectly communicate his mounting grief and growing courage.

Shot through with black humour and a genuine sense of loss, Everything Is Illuminated won the Guardian First Book Award in 2002, and deservedly so. A movie adaptation directed by Liev Schreiber and starring Elijah Wood is on the way. Hope it stays true to the novel, cause this really was a fantastic read.

Everything Is Illuminated
(ISBN No: 0141008253) Check NLB Catalogue for item availability.

My next book will be Bruce Sterling’s Zeitgeist.

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