Saturday, 7 April 2012

Book Review: Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

Everything is Illuminated
by Jonathan Safran Foer

Published: 16th April, 2002
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Genre: Fiction/Magical Realism
Format: Paperback
Pages: 276

Cover Art
I have only included one cover image as all of the others were only slight variations of this one. I really like the style; as I have said many times I really enjoy an unusual font that takes over a page! This one looks like pebbles, which I enjoy and the cover definitely caught my eye.

Plot Synopsis

 A young Jewish-American--who just happens to be called Jonathan Safran Foer--travels to the Ukraine in the hope of finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. 

He is aided in his search by Alex Perchov, a naïve Ukrainian translator, Alex's grandfather (also called Alex) and a flatulent mongrel bitch, named Sammy Davis Jr Jr. On their journey through Eastern Europe's obliterated landscape they unearth facts about the Nazi atrocities and the extent of Ukrainian complicity that have implications for Perchov as well as Safran Foer.  

Interspersed with this plot are fragments of a novel by "Safran Foer"- a magical realist account of life in the Shetl before the Nazis destroyed it. 

Other Things to Know About this Book:

  • The fictional Jonathan Safran Foer who travels to the Ukraine is looking for the village of Trachimbrod (or Trochenbrod). The historical background of the village:
During the Polish-Soviet War, the town was captured by Poland. By 1938 the town's exclusively Jewish population had grown to at least 3,000. Most of the population were engaged in farming, dairy farming, or tanning. 
When Nazi Germany later occupied Ukraine, they established a ghetto at Trochenbrod, bringing in Jews from nearby villages and towns. The Trochenbrod ghetto was liquidated by the Nazis in August and September 1942. Most of the Jews of Trochenbrod as well as of the neighbouring village Lozisht were murdered, as were the other Jews of Volhynia.  The village itself was totally destroyed by fire. Now only fields and a forest can be found there. 

My Rating:

First Lines:
' My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.'


Anyone who has read my gushing review of 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' knows that I became a fan-girl of Jonathan Safran Foer right there at the first page. He had me at second novel. I read that book first because the film was coming out and I wanted to see it (still haven't...I'm scared it'll ruin it) whereas I'd usually read an author's books in chronological order. In a way I'm glad I didn't because I feel he really hones his mad skillz in 'Extremely Loud...' and I find it strange that a lot of people just think it is a more of the same novel on the back of 'Everything is Illuminated'. This book is still a definite five star-er...because it is beautiful and I love it andI could talk and write about it all day and still not get bored of it.

I don't know how Jonathan Safran Foer manages to make language so beautiful. He just understands it. He understands how crucial words are and he knows how to weave language to make it do what he wants. I have never read novels where, as I am reading them, I am constantly marveling at the beauty of the writing and what I am getting from it. I know that sounds so pretentious but it is really fascinating to see words anew like that and find your language beautiful again.

The characters are brilliant. Alex, the charismatic translator, tells the parts of his story in letters to Jonathan Safran Foer, which are written in a Bond villain-esque broken English, which is both funny and thought provoking. I have seen in negative reviews of this book that people criticise the way Safran Foer makes Alex speak and write, as it is usually only words and word meanings he messes up, rather than tenses and clauses and all those language building blocks which are the tricky bits. But I think that's good. It gives the impression that Alex is using a thesaurus to change words to impress Jonathan which fits in really well with his character, and also makes the book readable as the meaning isn't as confused and lost as it would be if he messed other language features up. He will say 'rigid' instead of hard and 'currency' instead of money etc etc...I found it charming and made his literary voice really distinctive and interesting. 'Guess The Word He Replaced' is a fun game!

It also introduces key themes of the book: the reliability of recording past events in books, the reliability of translation and the reliability of memory. Everything Jonathan hears and records has been distorted in so many ways- it is a dense metafiction of he-said, she-said obscurity, mis-translation, people holding back things they don't want anyone to know and people not saying what they really think. In the novel, everyone evades Jonathan, this vegetarian Jewish-American who has come to write about them and unearth their buried secrets, and they constantly lie to him. This is interesting as it suggests we will never know the true story of any country; all have their painful history that they want to forget and will do everything they can to protect it. There is a part in the book where they are trying to find Trachimbrod and nobody they ask will even admit its existence. Countires mask past crimes, just as we discover some of the main characters are too.

This memory loss is also bound up with Jewishness in the novel. There is a quote about memory being the Jews sixth sense. Everything they do is comparable to past wrongs, past memories. To me, this was really poignant as Jews are among the most persecuted people in the world throughout history, so their past is rich with things they need to both remember and forget.

My favourite parts in the book were the excerpts from Jonathan Safran Foer's magical realist novel about his great-great-great-great (may have missed a couple of greats!) grandmother Brod. He re-imagines her life and it is truly fascinating and you really come to care for her character. I loved her connection to the name of the village; linguistic origins and name meanings are something Jonathan Safran Foer takes great care with. He also knows exactly how to make you love these people and then break your heart...and theirs. This was another way in which Alex came in handy; he would scold Jonathan for inflicting such torment on his characters and ask questions I wanted answers to myself! Alex becomes more and more involved and more and more vulnerable in his letters; what starts off as bravado and arrogance deteriorates into honesty and raw emotion. I loved that...I was with him all the way.

Overall, I know that this novel isn't going to be for everyone. It can be perceived as gimmicky (it has blocks of writing in different formats and switches between narratives and narrators like nobody's business) but I love novels that think outside the box and try and do things differently. Definitely not your average Holocaust novel, and you learn next to nothing about the Ukraine so don't expect that either. In my opinion, 'Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close' was superior just because I felt more obviously manipulated in this novel and the vast array of characters ALL had their strange eccentricities which did get a little trying. Still, I just love his books and his way of writing gets to me.

Other Thoughts

This Book has Inspired me to Read: 'Splinter' by Sebastian Fitzec.
Three Words to Describe this Book: Story-Telling Genius.


  1. I adored Extremely Loud, and I'm pretty sure I would love this one too! The concept of the letters really has me interest!
    Thanks for the great review :)
    -Jac @ For Love and Books

  2. Great review! I love your site and bestowed upon you a blog award :)
    Thank you for spending your time creating such an engaging and thought-provoking website!

    The details about the award are here:

  3. I enjoyed this review.

    I must admit, I was confused by the novel and I didn't much enjoy it. Shame, too. I had wanted to read it for such a long time prior.

  4. I am glad that you enjoyed this so much. I want to read it. Fantastic review.
    - Stephanie

  5. A Great review!

    Shelleyrae @ Book'd Out

  6. I love how you felt about this book! I'd actually already seen the movie version of Everything is Illuminated when I attempted to read this one, and so ended up not finishing it because (as often happens to me) I was kind of bored knowing where everything was going. I loved the narration of Alex though, and was glad that it seemed pretty steady between the book and the movie. I have heard that the book is left more open to interpretation than the movie, which I like. I'm one of those people who doesn't really click with this author's writing, but I do recognize that it's powerful, and that he tells very powerful stories. Lovely review!

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  11. Foer's novel is a great search for knowledge that ends up illuminating more than what was originally sought after. When looking for a good read, you will definitely get more than expected from this work. And in a good way. That is the only way I can think to describe this book. I definitely recommend this novel for everyone! It will definitely stay with you. It is a must read before anyone can call themselves a "well-read person."

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