Nine-year-old Oskar Schell has embarked on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York. His goal is to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey.
Although not a new book, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is on both my Goodreads 2013 Challenge List and my Wishlist Challenge 2013, as well as featuring in my vague list of titles to read for the BoutOfBooks Challenge, so I figured this qualified it for a review! In addition, this happens to be one of the best books I’ve ever read in my whole life, and I want to use this blog to recommend it to every single person who hasn’t already picked it up. Even if you’ve seen the film (which I haven’t yet!) read the book, because it is BEAUTIFUL. Visually, prose-wise, theme-wise… utterly, utterly beautiful. And heartbreaking. And tragic. And painful. I cried more than I can remember crying at a book since I read Elie Weisel’s Dawn/Day/Night trilogy last summer, and then I cried a LOT.
Jonathan Safran Foer takes an already-troubled event as a theme (the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers) and somehow injects even more sorrow and empathy by writing mainly from the mind of a child; a nine-year-old innocent child who lost his father in the attacks and is now trying to make sense of life without his biggest hero. Oskar is an incredibly intelligent and highly emotionally developed little boy, yet understandable finds it incredibly hard to fathom the realities of loss, death and the unexpected.
Almost written like a diary or inner monologue of Oskar, the reader quickly becomes aware of Oskar’s metaphorical descriptions of emotion – for example, when he is especially sad he describes his ‘boots feeling heavy’; similarly when he is feeling guilty or confused he tells us he ‘gives (myself) a bruise’. These shocking and distressing bits of information are Oskar’s secrets, known only to us; he feels betrayed by his mom who spends so much time with her new ‘friend’ Ron and unable to talk properly to his elderly grandma who lives across the street. Foer uses simple language to say the most complex things, strengthening our belief that is is nine year old Oskar telling the story, and in doing so makes his words even more poignant and sad, making us cry for Oskar, for the truth of the tragedy, and for the reality of loss and death in every single persons life, fictional or not.
Oskar liked to play puzzle games and treasure hunts with his dad before the latters’ untimely death, and convinces himself that a key found in a vase in his fathers office is a ‘clue’ to a final game set up by his father before that fateful day. Using his interest in math, science and geography, Oskar calculates a series of infinite possibilities to what the key could unlock and where this magical place could be, convincing himself that by finding the door or box that fits he will find a link to his father, the man he misses so much he can’t comprehend growing up without. Oskar’s determination takes him on a wild goose chase around the districts of New York City as he searches for anyone who knew his father while he was alive, however weak or tenuous their link was. He meets a myriad of folks from all walks and backgrounds of life along the way; though as time goes on he loses hope bit by bit of ‘finding’ his dad; causing him to retreat further and further into himself. Months and months after starting his search Oskar is rewarded with a small bit of relevant information, but then finds himself at the mercy of a reality that doesn’t always give you the answers that you want.
As we are taken on Oskar’s journey of self-discovery and mourning, chapters written by his paternal grandparents interject the flow of his original narration, and as a reader you are given an insight into a family history a lot more complicated and damaged than Oskar can currently hope to understand. His grandma and absent grandfather had secrets of their own, secrets which give insight into the Schell family as a whole and may go some way in explaining the ingrained aspects of Oskar’s personality that make him such an unusual and perplexing little boy. Tales from his grandparents earlier lives are almost as heartbreaking as Oskar’s current predicament; altogether they create a web of despair and misfortune so dense it hurts your very insides to keep reading. But if you’re anything like me, you WILL keep reading, out of love and desperation and hope for Oskar, and intrigue and absorption for yourself. When I finished the book I felt so full, full of emotion and satisfaction and contentment and sympathy. I enjoyed every single page, in that strange way that a book filled with sad things can be ‘enjoyable’.
I can’t really say any more that doesn’t reiterate what I’ve already said, except for the fact that this is a book that will stay with me for a very, very long time and one which I will definitely want to re-read every couple of years or so. Oskar Schell is one of the most engaging and magnetic characters of fiction, and someone I wanted to meet in real life and love and hug and promise everything was going to get better. It’s the first book I finished in 2013 but I can already tell it’s going to be one of the best. Read it.
Oh, and one more thing? My copy had photographs printed amongst the pages. I don’t know if every edition has these. But those photographs made me cry almost as much as the words did, so be warned.
A final top tip? Don’t read this book on a train, unless you want 4 different people over the course of one journey asking if you’re alright and one person offering you a tissue to clean up your smudged panda-eye make up.
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close was published by Mariner Books in Spring 2006 and is currently available in paper and ebook format, and also has a film adptation of the same name released in 2011 and directed by Stephen Daldry.
- Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (bloggingforourmasters.wordpress.com)