The simplest thing would be to describe Everything is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer's accomplished debut, as a novel about the Holocaust. It is, but that really fails to do justice to the sheer ambition of this book. The main story is a grimly familiar one. A young Jewish-American--who just happens to be called Jonathan Safran Foer--travels to the Ukraine in the hope of finding the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis. He is aided in his search by Alex Perchov, a naïve Ukrainian translator, Alex's grandfather (also called Alex) and a flatulent mongrel bitch, named Sammy Davis JR JR. On their journey through Eastern Europe's obliterated landscape they unearth facts about the Nazi atrocities and the extent of Ukrainian complicity that have implications for Perchov as well as Safran Foer. This narrative is not, however, recounted from (the character) Jonathan Safran Foer's perspective. It is relayed through a series of letters that Alex sends to Foer. These are written in the kind of broken Russo-English normally reserved for Bond villains and Latka from the US television series Taxi. (Sentences such as "It is mammoth honour for me write for a writer, especially when he is American writer, like Ernest Hemingway"; "It is bad and popular habit for people in Ukraine to take things without asking" are the norm.) Interspersed between these letters are fragments of a novel by "Safran Foer"--a wonderfully imagined, almost magical realist, account of life in the Shetl before the Nazis destroyed it. These are in turn commented on by Alex creating an additional metafictional angle to the tale.
If all this sounds a little daunting don't be put off; Safran Foer is an extremely funny as well as intelligent writer. Admittedly he has an annoying habit of capitalising great chunks of text, but minor typographical nuances are easy to ignore in a book that combines some of the best Jewish folk yarns since Isaac Bashevis Singer with a quite heartbreaking meditation on love, friendship and loss. --Travis Elborough