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Book Review: Everything is Illuminated

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

Originally published: March 1, 2002

Author: Jonathan Safran Foer

Genres: Novel, Humor, Bildungsroman, Domestic Fiction

Awards: Guardian First Book Award, National Jewish Book Award for Fiction

Nominations: Audie Award for Best Male Narrator

This book is worth every bit of good press it's received. It's heartbreaking and gorgeous and breathtaking.

I spent a number of years very interested in the events surrounding World War 2 and the Holocaust, and this book is among the absolute best literature I've read about that time (I'd say the only real competition I can think of off the top of my head may be Night). This book documents a part of the era that isn't often examined, though--those first moments of repression and death for the Jews, around the era of Krystallnacht rather than the time at the end of the war in concentration camps. The richness of the history he develops (two hundred or so years of it) shows the threads that connect the early days of the shtetl to Trachimbrod's ultimate destruction and Foer weaves them beautifully.

I was also struck by the humor of this book, especially early on. One thing that's difficult about many books about this era is that they become oppressive and, by the end of the reading, you've taken in so much horror that it makes you almost numb. This story's horror hits you in the face and catches you by surprise, amplifying the dread of the experience in a way that sometimes isn't as successfully achieved with other works due to the continual weight pressing down, like stones heaped on a convicted witch's chest. You know, early on, that the horror must be there, because you know why Jonathan's character is on his quest, but the simultaneous magnitude and intimacy of it doesn't quite become clear until you're really invested in the story.

This book also rather successfully plays with the concept of truth, which made the literary scholar in me a little giddy. The "hero" is named Jonathan Safran Foer. But it's a novel. So how much is true? What is truth and what is fabrication become very muddy throughout the story, even if you allow for the "truth" of suspended disbelief of this novel-world, something which comes out frequently in the letters of Jonathan's translator, Alex. Alex writes in one letter: "We are being very nomadic with the truth, yes? The both of us? Do you think this is acceptable when we are writing about things that occurred? If your answer is no, then why do you write about Trachimbrod and your grandfather in the manner that you do, and why do you command me to be untruthful. If your answer is yes, then this creates another question, which is if we are to be such nomads with the truth, why do we not make the story more premium than life?"

Foer's been criticized for the way he structured this story, but I thought it was incredibly successful. The book is made up of letters from Alex to Jonathan, Alex's narrations (which he is sending to Jonathan--as you read, you'll notice that we're privileged to Alex's original narrations instead of Jonathan's suggested revisions), and the stories of Trachimbrod's history which are forwarded to Alex by Jonathan throughout the book. In many ways, this assemblage of information is actually more Alex's than it is Jonathan's, which adds another layer of distance from the author.

I could talk about this book for a month. But hopefully this offers a good perspective on the merits of the book to the point that you go pick it up. Now, if possible. If you're not familiar with this point in history, it's so important to learn about these horrors, to see what abysmal things humans can do to each other, and to know that not only CAN they happen again, but they WILL. The only hope that humanity has, really, is that our species can head off the worst atrocities by sheer desire that they never have to live through them personally.

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