‘Here I Am’ by Jonathan Safran Foer *****

Since the moment I heard that the god of contemporary authors, Jonathan Safran Foer, was going to be releasing a new novel, the barely-concealed bookworm inside me has been almost continually squealing with excitement.  Whilst markedly different to the original information – Escape from Children’s Hospital was supposed to be released in 2015 – his newest novel, Here I Am, is well worth the wait.

The novel focuses upon a family living in Washington DC.  Jacob and Julia Bloch have been married for sixteen years, and have three sons – Sam, on the cusp of an unwanted Bar Mitzvah, ‘basically eleven’-year-old Max, and five-year-old Benjy.  We also meet members of the Bloch’s extended family – Jacob’s parents, Irv and Deborah, his great-grandfather, Isaac, and several of his Israeli cousins.  The plot revolves around the sudden failure of the Bloch’s marriage, and Sam’s Bar Mitzvah celebration, which is supposed to be filled with pomp and circumstance, and which he is utterly dreading.

Here I Am is a deep familial jigsaw, which has been incredibly well pieced together.  The dialogue is wonderfully constructed, and there is a very dark humour to it in places, which adds a great balance to the whole.  Above all, the novel feels very believable; the characters are lifelike, and their problems and interactions are very realistic indeed.

Safran Foer’s writing is, as ever, both startling and stunning, and I was reminded immediately as to why I love his work so much.  Throughout, I adored the little details which he made use of – for instance, ‘a redheaded boy who still got chills from so much as thinking about the epilogue of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows‘.

As always, the Jewish history which Safran Foer has included was both rich and fascinating.  In terms of the plot, Here I Am begins in a manner which feels less historically reliant than Everything is Illuminated (2002) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), but this history builds, and is consequently used in masterful ways.  He is an incredibly thoughtful and understanding author, who sees the importance and consequences of many things which have occurred throughout history; primarily, here, the focus is upon the effects of the Holocaust upon the children and grandchildren of survivors.

I was pulled into Here I Am immediately, and despite its almost-600 page count, I found myself racing through it, quite unable to put it down.  Never once does the story become lost.  I was reminded of Zoe Heller throughout (also a wonderful contemporary author), who examines similar themes in The Believers (2008).  Elements are discussed which can be found in Safran Foer’s earlier efforts; not in a repetitive way, but in a more grown-up, political manner.  Identity, family, and Jewishness are the most prevalent of these.  Here I Am is politically shrewd on a global scale; Julia and Jacob’s marital problems play out against the backdrop of a Middle East fraught with disasters – an earthquake which triggers a cholera epidemic, starving people, and full-blown war.

Here I Am is as strong a novel as his previous works, but it feels like a departure of sorts from them; it is a more grown-up novel, with less experimental writing, and a dose more realism.  Here I Am feels very personal on a number of levels, and the ending is nothing short of heartbreaking.  I loved this well-realised and masterful novel, but I must admit that in no way was it what I was expecting.

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