Review: Everything Is Illuminated

Posted 30 September, 2015 by Lianne in Books / 2 Comments

Everything Is Illuminated
By: Jonathan Safran Foer
Format/Source: Mass market paperback; my purchase

With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man — also named Jonathan Safran Foer — sets out to find the woman who may or may not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war; an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior; and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.

I first read this book around…2009/2010 perhaps? I was definitely in grad school at the time–hence why I never wrote a proper review on it (correction: I wrote a brief blurb about it in 2010)–but I had greatly enjoyed it then (especially as I was studying Ukraininan history about the same time). I had always wanted to revisit the book since and reading Aloi’s review at guiltless reading prompted me to finally pick up the book again, reading it during my breaks at placement 🙂

Like the first time, my favourite storyline in this book was Jonathan’s search to find the woman who may have saved his grandfather during the Second World War, accompanied by an old man, his grandson, and a dog. As interesting as the search is, uncovering the past at the same time, my favourite part was really Jonathan’s interactions with Alex, his translator. Alex is probably my favourite character in the book with his unique Ukrainian-style English, his interest in America, his priorities in life–well, really, it was the way he spoke, he had me in stitches a lot of the time. Much as it was Jonathan’s journey, Alex was the one who ended up affected the most out of the journey because of the way his grandfather’s story weaves in and revelations about the war are gradually revealed the further along they go. But going back a bit, I love how Alex and Jonatahn’s interaction also played out in the letters interspersed throughout the back and forth storylines of the past and the present as Alex sort of becomes a surrogate or connection between the reader and the story–he is in our position, reading and commenting and ultimately hitting the heart of the story and asking the questions that we would ask about the turn of events as well.

The journey was interesting as we start off with the strange mix of company searching for a village that was erased by the war and in search for a woman who may or may not still be alive. There are a lot of hilarious moments with a clash of different cultures and misunderstandings–the scene in the hotel about the potato remains my favourite scene in the book–but there’s also a lot of poignant moments, especially as the story begins to uncover the atrocities committed during the Second World War in Ukraine and the complex socio-cultural situation that existed in the country then. It’s painful and personal as it shows how friends and neighbours can turn on each other at a moment’s notice, how tragedies result from conflicted responsibilities.

The strangest part of the novel had to be the Trachimbrod storyline with the community that existed then, the line of descendents living there leading up to the Second World War and what becomes of Jonathan’s grandfather, as Jonathan writes. It can be strange and funny, and it’s deeply infused with magical realism here, but it’s also here that much of the experimental, postmodern writing emerges, which can make or break you depending if you’re into that kind of writing. The only reason I got through it was the fact that I was really enjoying the other stories happening in this novel and this segment of the novel does weave in considerably. And it was interesting enough, once you get pass some of the randomness of the writing.

Everything Is Illuminated was definitely an enjoyable read the second time around. It can be funny but it can also be poignant, dark but also hopeful. It ends on a rather sombre note, making the goodbye a bit tough, but otherwise it was great to revisit this novel.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Learn more about the author on Wikipedia || Order this book from the Book Depository

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