I didn’t read this when it came out. The breathless acclaim for this 2005 book, dubbed by many to be the must-read novel about 9/11, made me nervous. Four years after the events of that morning, I still did not want to be reminded of thousands of people dying; my imagination would not handle it. As this book’s 9-year-old narrator, Oskar Schell, might say, it “gave me incredibly heavy boots.”
This expression is only a more colorful one of many (he might say a “googolplex”) in precocious, autism-spectrum, grieving Oskar’s extensive, expressive vocabulary. He invents obsessively (a birdseed suit), keeps a notebook titled “Stuff that Happened to Me,” bruises himself in secret, and longs for his father, Thomas, who died in the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.
We meet Oskar after the fact, as he discovers a key in his father’s closet and goes on a quest to find the lock that it fits. Interwoven with Oskar’s adventures and observations are entries from his grandparents, wounded survivors of the Dresden firebombing, who communicate, or not, in their own burdened, convoluted, loving way.
This novel sings and soars in many voices, in octave-straining highs and deep bass lows, explaining and exploring love and loss. It’s a breathless, headlong anthem to creativity and life force, a quest story, a valentine to New York City, a meditation on family, stability and change. For all his erudition, Oskar leads with a child’s open eyes on a quest for healing, understanding and coming to grips with life and all that it throws at us. If you’ve lost anybody—to 9/11 or, like so many of us, someone, anyone in the intervening decade—this is a novel that will resonate.