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Everything is Illuminated

by Jonathan Safran Foer

A 20-year-old Jewish American, Jonathan Safran Foer, goes in search of his roots in the Ukraine and is accompanied by his translator, Alex (also 20), and Alex's grandfather. The result is an absorbing story, hilarious and heartbreaking.

Foer sets out to write about his grandfather's village of Trachimbrod and produces a magic realist account charting the history of the shtetl and its Rabelaisian characters. The narrative of Everything is Illuminated shuffles between this manuscript, Alex's account of Foer's visit and excerpts from Alex's letters to Foer.

Alex's prose is very funny. Not only is it written in a pastiche of terrible broken English but he has a disquietingly naïve take on everything. Despite his crazy language, Alex's character gradually becomes apparent - his affection for his grandfather and devotion to his younger brother, his eventual sensitivity and understanding belie the initial posturing ("many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements, notwithstanding the Inebriated Kangaroo, the Gorky Tickle, and the Unyielding Zookeeper…….") that results from his desire to impress his hero, Jonathan.

Alex's 'blind' grandfather drives them to find Trachimbrod and uncover its mysteries. He insists on taking with him his 'Seeing Eye bitch', Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior (who has come from a home for forgetful dogs) and some great comedy moments come out of this strange adventure.

As Trachimbrod reveals its dark secrets, we come to understand what the novel is about. Everything is Illuminated has been criticised for dealing too lightly with such a weighty subject but I felt that the way the story is told - from a different perspective, narrowing it down to a single village, with a cast of wonderful characters - is an effective way to make a very well-documented event fresh and involving.


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