Christine Strelan - Between the Covers

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Jonathan Safran Foer

Penguin 2005

Everything thats born has to die, which means our lives are like skyscrapers. The smoke rises at different speeds, but theyre all on fire and were all trapped. This is the conclusion of Oskar Schell, a nine-year old New York boy whose father died in the September 11 attacks. Most of the novel is narrated by Oskar, who is preciously articulate, a clever little science geek who invents extraordinary gadgets, writes fan letters to Stephen Hawking, and ponders questions like: Does a cave have no ceiling, or is a cave all ceiling? Finding a key in his dead fathers closet, Oskar undertakes a quest to discover what it opens, hoping it will bring him closer to his dad. This takes him all over New York, and we learn a lot about the city and some of its intriguing residents.

Foers novel is an engrossing exploration of grief and loss. Politics dont concern him at all; the book concentrates solely on the responses of Oskar and his family. There are no heroes or baddies, just individuals seeking some private consolation after a very public tragedy. Theres also a sub-plot involving Oskars German grandparents, who survived the US firebombing of Dresden. The harrowing description of this event is Foers subtle way of reminding us that Americans have been perpetrators as well as victims.

Like Foers earlier novel, Everything is Illuminated, this is a wonderful book. The characters are all believable and the central mystery of the key has an unexpected resolution. Its very funny in places, without losing its underlying tone of sorrow and bewilderment at the vile things humans do to each other. Most of all, it inspires absolute compassion for Oskar; he is not some annoyingly cute Home Alone moppet. Solitary, nerdy, he devotes his considerable intellect to dealing with the loss of his father. Hes often unreasonable, turning his hurt on his mother, or covering his body with self-inflicted bruises.

Like many books about death, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is also about love. It reminds us not to take any of our relationships for granted, and to relish our loved ones while we can.

Books reviewed are available at the Book Warehouse in Keen Street, Lismore, and at Lismore Shopping Square.

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