Having done things back to front and read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close first you come to the debut from Foer with a sense of expectation.
On the one hand you expect to be wowed because this won so many plaudits but on the other you know that you are about to enter a highly stylised approach to telling a story that doesn’t always make reading easy.
Sadly for me there was a feeling far too much of the latter with the story weaving in-between the present and the past as the author tries to locate the physical location of his family’s history. He has a few scraps of information left that can help direct him to a Jewish world lost forever in the Second World War. There are moments when as he discovers that last remaining Jew and some of the experiences his relatives went through when the story has the power to move you.
But unfortunately there are far too many things that are just odd and because they echo throughout the story you either like them or don’t. On top of that there is the device used where the story unfolds through a series of letters from the interpreter used by the author to help in the search.
Some of the textual and typography playing around that is evident in Incredibly Loud is here, but not in the same degree. Where my real problem came was with the jumping around in time. It prevented you from ever really getting a chance to get under the skin of a character. So the reader is left with a significant portion of each characters story to develop in their own minds.
There is a story here and perhaps the pressure was to produce something memorable and different from similar types of tracking down relative accounts. The problem is of course that you can work too hard in making it different.
Have no fear the ending will not be revealed. What can safely be said is that the last third of the book is much more enjoyable than what precedes it. The reason perhaps is because some of the rambling about myths and legends is cut out and real life, which is compelling enough in time of war kicks in.
As the different strands of the story come together the humour drops off and the harsh consequences of the decisions made in war come back to haunt the leading characters.
This starts feeling very much like a personal quest but by the end it is a story that applies to a generation rather than just the one individual family.
A review will follow soon…
As the book settles down and gets past the half way mark you are juggling three time periods. The life of the grandfather who shortly after his marriage was to face the Nazis sweeping through the village. The current day search for the story of his escape and the interaction between the interpeter and the author in letters written at stages commenting on the discoveries made as they search for the truth about the past.
Part of the problem is that before any of the stories really opens up and grabs you the time shifts and you go forwards and backwards. The past does inform the present but it does feel sometimes as if the action has not been given the chance to breathe.
You know that the intertwining of the different periods is going to be key to the book and the structure is as important as any of the main characters but perhaps the reaction to that is the reader’s choice. You either love it and view it as being very clever or you see it as perhaps over worked and a structure that breaks the continuity.
The dialogue between the character of the limited interpreter and the author keeps this going because what is happening in the present is much more easily accessible than what went on in the past. The scene where they finally find someone who knows of the old Jewish settlement is moving enough to remind you of the kind of emotional power that Foer unleashes in Extremely Loud…
But I have to confess to continuing to struggle with the flow. As a result it is taking a lot longer than normal to get through a book of 275 pages. Determined to finish because on the way there are going to be some funny, moving and clever passages. Just wish at this stage the gaps in between them wasn’t so difficult.
Having started this book I am determined to finish it even if for some reason it doesn’t grab me. On the face of it the story sounds reasonably compelling with the author travelling to the Ukraine to uncover the story of how his family escaped the holocaust.
But the movement back and forth in time is made slightly more difficult by the fact it all feels slightly too over developed. So for instance there are some passages that make you laugh and their humour. Other parts are very well crafted but for some reason it doesn’t flow.
Possibly as the author gets deeper into his mission to uncover the truth and the parallel story of his great-great-great grandmother evolves it will take off a bit more but not yet…
One of the challenges as a reader is not just to get with the rewinding of time but also to try and work out the narrative voice. It seems to be coming from the translator Alex who is charged with taking Foer to trace his family story.
But in between there are parts of the historical family tree story that are clearly being told by Foer. This divided voice creates the chance for humour and for the author to have a pop at himself ands some of the Jewish stereotypes.
But this is not just about providing different views of the story but also because Foer is playing with language and drawing out the prospect and possibilities of some deliberate misunderstanding.
If there is one thing that immediately strikes you about the writing of Jonathan Safran Foer it is the language.
He is challenging the reader from the first sentence with sentences that are constructed in a way that not only imparts a foreign origin but also some wicked humour. That is at work here as an introduction is voiced by A Ukrainian student who was tasked with helping Foer track down the story of his family’s past.
It is all a fiction of course but it is done well enough to allow you to suspend your judgment and willingly get sucked into the story. That story goes straight from that introduction into the distant past with a Jewish settlement in Poland and tales of dead tradesmen and adopted children. Clearly the mysteries that the modern day American is coming to solve have deep roots…