In May, for book group, we decided to read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. As a group we had read ‘The Last Word’ by Hanif Kureishi (which was universally disliked) and ‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson (which had a mixed response) in the two preceding months. Each member of our little group pitched a book to the other members, and then we voted. Extremely Loud (as I will now shorten the title to) tied with ‘The Remains of the Day’ by Kazuo Ishiguro and was eventually chosen on the toss of a coin. Even though I voted to read Extremely Loud I still wasn’t sure about it; the only reason I had heard of it was because of the film released in 2011 which received very average reviews. I know you shouldn’t judge a book by its film reviews but sometimes it’s hard not to.
Extremely Loud is the story of a young boy, Oscar, who lives in New York with his Mother. They are both trying to deal with the trauma of losing their Father/Husband in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre. Oscar’s father was in one of the towers when it collapsed. Two years later Oscar finds a key inside a vase in his father’s wardrobe and then sets off to find the lock that this key will fit. This is the (very) basic premise of the novel and I am not going to divulge any further plot details as I think, that particularly for this book, the less you know about the book the better.
At first I found it quite hard to get into Extremely Loud, for the first 50 or so pages I struggled with the narration and characters. I originally put this down to me reading another first person narrative immediately prior to this book. I had just finished ‘The Shock of the Fall’ by Nathan Filer where the narrator, an early twenties male, has a very strong personality, and although is older than Oscar, was immature. Oscar, in Extremely Loud, has a maturity way beyond his years. I thought I was getting the two different characters from these two novels slightly mixed – the former was filtering into Oscar’s voice. As I said, this is what I had originally thought, and maybe that is still true; however, other book group members had the same difficulty with the start of the book as I did. Interestingly this did not put me off the book and after a little while I became quite engrossed with Oscar and the story he (and other members of his family) were telling.
I thought Extremely Loud was very good; a rare combination of a writing style that is clearly high quality, with a plot and characters that are interesting and readable. After my initial reservations I then became absorbed in the novel and couldn’t stop reading it. The characters created to populate the novel were believable people, and also likable people. The way in which the characters act and think was portrayed very well with their emotions at the heart of the book. I found Extremely Loud very difficult emotionally; the loss and grief that the family are coping with varies throughout the novel as loss and grief does in real life. I felt that some of the insights described brilliantly by Foer on grief were not deliberately sentimental trying to extract an emotive reaction from the reader, but honestly, heartfelt emotions trying to connect with the reader about truth, anguish, pain and sorrow. Although I have no direct connections with any loss from the 9/11 terrorist attack, I was vividly reminded of that day and the events as they unfolded, and the terrible sadness that I felt. Foer also uses many images within Extremely Loud which turn out to be a very powerful visual tool to aid the story. The final concluding images are very famous but nonetheless shocking in their depiction.
Extremely Loud bravely takes on a very difficult subject matter turning it in to a haunting narrative of love and loss. The book is not without its flaws, one section towards that start of the story was tedious and unnecessarily long-winded; at times Oscar seemed too mature even for the most precocious child. However, these are minor criticisms amongst a wealth of great characters, situations and emotions the novel has to offer. I would highly recommend this book to anyone.
If you have read Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close you may like:
- The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer
- Waterland by Graham Swift
- On the Beach by Nevil Shute