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I have a slightly weird fascination with reading about 9/11. I think it stems from my interest in true crime and tragic life stories. It sound completely morbid and most people I know think it is bizarre. It isn't some voyeuristic fascination though, I like to read about the adverse situations people are placed in and the effect it has on them. I like to imagine what I would do if I was faced with the same situation and how I would respond in the face of terror.
Anyway, it is because of my interest in reading about 9/11 that I came across this book. It is interesting to know that very few fictional accounts have been written about what is considered one of the worst terrorist attacks ever. I have pretty much read anything out there, fiction and non-fiction, and then one day I came across this novel. The premise for the book was one that deeply interested me and I immediately went online to buy a copy.
The book is narrated by nine year old Oskar Schell. Oskar's father, Thomas, died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The story begins after Thomas' death and with Oskar looking in his father's wardrobe. In a vase Oskar finds an envelope with the word 'Black' written on it, which he assumes is a name, and inside is a key. Oskar decides to solve this last mystery of his father's existence and decides to track down every person with the surname Black in New York City in order to ask them about the key and whether they knew his father.
Alongside the main story of Oskar's plight to discover the purpose of the key runs another narrative. Eventually the two unite towards the end of the book, though it is unclear in the beginning the relevance this sub-plot has in Oskar's story. This part of the story is written through a series of letters, which turn out to be correspondence between Oskar's grandmother and his estranged grandfather.
As Oskar's journey takes place he meet many wonderful people. He documents each step by taking their photo and writing about them in his journal. As the story progresses more and more becomes clear about 'the worst day' and how it has effected Oskar's life. On the morning of September 11th Oskar was released from school and returned home to hear several panicked messages left by his trapped father. As the book progresses the contents of the messages are slowly revealed to the reader and the ultimate fate of Oskar's father clear to all.
The ending of the book is at once profound and utterly hopeful in its message. I won't spoil the ending for you but it is never quite what you expect it to be. This is one of the aspects that I love most about this book, it constantly keeps you guessing as to where Oskar's journey will take you and what the ultimate ending might be.
The story is punctuated by black, white and colour images that represents parts of Oskar's journey. One of the many recurring images is that of a man falling from the top floors of the World Trade Center. Oskar scoured the internet and studied picture after picture looking for his father and desperately trying to make sense of his death. Ultimately it is a death that no one can make sense of, no one can explain to Oskar why a group of men flew a plane into a building and killed his father. It is something that in reality cannot be explained away simply by religious conviction or political motivation. Oskar is bereft without his father and no amount of reasoning can ever reasonably account for his absence in his sons life.
I have no idea how to convey to you quite how exquisite this book is. The writing is like nothing I have ever opened myself up to before and the pairing of images and words is unique and exciting. Jonathan Safran Foer totally changes the way in which you view a novel, and bends and ultimately breaks the rules that dictate what an author can do with it. The result is perfect. I don't think I've ever said that about a book before, but it is simply perfect in every way. You will cry and you will laugh and it will totally change the way you think about this human tragedy.
I actually ended up buying a copy on Amazon which I don't usually do, as I prefer to support my local book shop. I did, however, find a 'collectible' copy on there for the same prize as a new copy so I ordered it straight away. I was delighted when it arrived and realised it was a signed copy which is one of only 1000 in existence. This is a book I love and will keep forever so I was delighted to have such a special copy.
I cannot say enough good things about this book. It is profound and utterly moving, it is compelling and compulsive to read and it has you guessing at the turn of every page. The writing is lyrical and melodic, it twists and turns in exciting and unusual ways that focus your attentions and pull you along with the evolving story. What is expressed is such a pure reflection on the grief felt by those who lose someone and the way it reverberates through their life, for the rest of their life.
I cannot urge you enough to buy this book and devour it like I did. It is beautiful and provocative, it is breathtaking, electrifying and ultimately utterly spellbinding.
Scattered throughout this book's pages are photographs, diagrams, pages filled with random numbers and pages on which words squeeze together so that you can't read them. These have little to no purpose, waste paper and hide the fact that "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is annoyingly sentimental, poorly structured and contrived. Foer's aim clearly is to stack up awww points by way of the following:
innocent Nine year old boy suffering a loss - 500 pts
Old, Lonely, eccentric but friendly man befriends said boy - 859 pts
Dad dies in 9/11 attacks. Was the BEST HUMAN BEING AND FATHER WHO EVER LIVED - 1000 pts
and extraordinary acts of human kindness and tragedy throughout showing how beautiful and precious human life can be etc etc building life up so that when the reader remembers 9/11 they get ANGRY and sad it's just astoundingly manipulative.
And I haven't even begun to mention the other narrators which often left me feeling lost and wondering what they were doing existing apart from to say something vaguely poetic and wet.
Don't buy this based on how OK everything is illuminated was, it has so much less charm than that. Maybe buy the book if you're old and have grandchildren. You're probably one of the few people that might like this book.
Nine-year-old Oskar Schell is an inventor, amateur entomologist, Francophile, letter writer, pacifist, natural historian, percussionist, romantic, Great Explorer, jeweller, detective, vegan, and collector of butterflies. When his father is killed in the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre, Oskar sets out to solve the mystery of a key he discovers in his father's closet. It is a search which leads him into the lives of strangers, through the five boroughs of New York, into history, to the bombings of Dresden and Hiroshima, and on an inward journey which brings him ever closer to some kind of peace.