This was the allocated book of my first-ever meeting with a newly formed local book club. By the time I started it, I thought I’d left it too late to finish before the meeting – then I read it compulsively in about three days. I finished it in tears as sunlight encroached across my living room floor on a long Sunday morning.
In short, the novel is about a young boy, Oskar Schell, who loses his father in the September 11 terrorist attacks. Oskar is a precocious nine-year-old, and his father encouraged his inquisitive mind by often setting him tasks and puzzles. So, when his father dies and Oskar finds a key in an envelope with the word ‘Black’ written on it hidden in a vase, he sets out to solve what he hopes is his father’s last journey of discovery for him – by travelling throughout New York meeting everybody with the surname Black.
It was at this point that the book became a little far-fetched – even when you find out that Oskar’s mother had become aware of her sons journey and, despite not knowing the full details, pre-contacted his ‘Blacks’ ahead of his arrival would she 1. really have allowed a nine-year-old in post-911 New York to travel across the city alone (or, as it turns out, accompanied by an elderly stranger)? or 2. as a grieving and apparently very busy lawyer, had the foresight and will to play a behind the scenes role in the entire elaborate scheme for his sake, without actually knowing what he was looking for or what the result would be?
However, other than that criticism – and with suspended disbelief – the plot was engaging and the characters that you met in the Blacks of New York were often symbolic and usually very moving. Oskar’s grief (his “heavy boots”) is believable and sad – particularly the secret he carries on his little shoulders of having heard his father’s final voice messages, found himself unable to answer the ringing phone in the crucial moment and having hidden the answering machine from his mother. He sometimes bears the guilt by “giving [himself] a little bruise” which is heart-breaking in both its gravity and innocence.
Oskar’s story runs parallel with that of his grandparents – narrated largely through letters, and often set in WWII Germany. The relationship between Oskar’s German grandparents is highly unusual, sometimes a little confronting but moving in its own right and Foer’s main outlet for experimental prose – not all of which was easy to follow.
Another technique used by Foer in this book was imagery and representative fonts/text – a la The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time and (I’m told, having never read it) Diary of a Wimpy Kid. So, for example, when we’re told Oskar’s mute grandfather writes one word in the centre of the page, the next page has just one word in the centre of the page (possibly another reason this was such a quick read). Or, when Oskar is looking through his secret collection of print outs and magazine cut-outs, we see the same pictures on the page that he describes. Some in the book club said they found this distracting, and I can see their point to an extent. But I appreciated the effectiveness of the technique in some instances – particularly in the epistolary sections, and as a reminder of some of that shocking and infamous imagery that came out of 911, which I have to confess I found myself morbidly revisiting online whilst reading this book. However, I also thought the technique sometimes unnecessary and borderline pretentious – as if Foer was just doing it because he could, rather than to complement the text or add meaning.
There is a movie adaptation of this book starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock as Oskar’s parents. I haven’t seen it yet and am reluctant to, one reason being because it combines two central characters into one, and another because I can’t imagine how a book so reliant on the written word for effect could translate well onto screen.
Next Book Club book is The Other Hand by Chris Cleave.