Book Review: Here I Am, by Jonathan Safran Foer

Confronting the enduring question of what it means to be human, Here I Am depicts a series of events that impact a Jewish family living in Washington, D.C.

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Drenched in pristine, psychologically-gripping prose which hits hard and true, playing with the reader’s subconscious expectations of the title, Jonathan Safran Foer delves deeply into a myriad of personal, historic, family and political issues which begin tearing the Bloch family apart. It begins from the minute Julia and Jacob are faced with son Sam’s potential expulsion from his Jewish school for allegedly using a ‘bad’ word, the anticipation of a family reunion with Israeli relatives, and a sudden, serious rift in their marriage.

The Bloch’s face questioning where their family are really ‘sited’ – as a unit, as individual members, their interrelationships, culture and beliefs. Is it within a building, a Synagogue, a national identity, religious identity, the online digital world of Second Life, imaginary home designs or the self? Where is ‘here’? Who is the ‘I’? Where is the ‘am’?

Foer deftly builds an extraordinarily layered domestic and global panorama of the Bloch’s lives, one of immense sympathy, balanced with a no holds barred exposure of each character’s failings and vulnerabilities. There’s a powerful, blunt beauty to each of them which makes Here I Am a superb page-turner of a book.

As a couple and as individuals, Jacob, a TV script writer, and Julia, an interior designer, are offered as a bittersweet meld of youthful tenderness, dedication to the spirit and richness of their faith, yet each one is withholding a secret self over years. It has slowly poisoned their union. Their shared approach to bringing up their children is divided, splitting their sense of self security and, in turn, passing down damage to their children, especially Sam, the eldest. Sam deals valiantly with his father’s support by believing him innocent in his fight over expulsion, and his mother’s belief that he is guilty as charged.

This central issue forms the foundation of Foer’s exploration of the past, present and future of the Bloch family in terms of its family history, tied to the history of World War II and Israel. The first 30 pages of the novel are a powerful, almost breathless, deeply biblical compression of the Bloch’s familial and WW/Israeli history. In it, Jacob’s grandfather, father and cousin’s antecedent’s lives fill Here I Am with the hope, desperation, ambition and dreams of Jewish immigrants to America. It shows the transformation it wreaks on their civic, religious and national being. It is a weight on Jacob as much a challenge. For his Father Irv, it is a zealous political calling.

While Jacob’s inner struggle with each member of his family is the spoke on which the novel turns, Foer fully fleshes out each member, playing their own individual life struggle in context with Jacob’s. It’s as if the Bloch’s are attempting to reach out from their own separate, almost hermetically-sealed inner worlds to each other, largely with little success, if any.

Here I Am is of those novels uniquely celebrated for their ability to grasp and give concrete personal expression to pivotal social and political moments in time, both European and American, and test them in a language as brutal as it is poetic and with a vision that is as epochal as it is recognisably of a moment, here and now.

Reviewed by David O’Brien
Twitter: @DavidOBupstART

Rating out of 10:  10

Released by: Penguin Australia
Release date: September 2016, and paperback in May 2017
RRP: $32.99 trade paperback, $45 hardcover, $17.99 eBook, or $22.99 paperback

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