Oskar is a young boy trying to come to terms with the death of his father in the 9/11 crash. His mother and grandmother are his only family now, or so he thinks. When Oskar finds a key in a vase in his father’s closet, he thinks it’s a thread whose end will bring about a much sought after answer. Whose key is it and what does it open? Will finding the lock bring something of his father back? Was he meant to find it? His only clue gives him an idea of where to start, although it’s a pretty wobbly start and there are months of puzzles ahead, waiting to be solved.
I wasn’t taken with the book at first. I thought it was trying too hard to do something clever, and then I realized I was trying too hard not to like it. Oskar seemed like a smart boy – inquisitive, always searching, but burrowing his pain deep inside, letting it out only for the briefest of moments in conversations with his mother and grandmother. Their interactions range from silly to heart-breaking seriousness in the blink of an eye, the words warm and comforting then sharp, leaving invisible wounds.
Somewhere halfway the story my perception changed – what seemed at first a jumble of events began to have a shape – of what, I did not know but at least then I began to feel confident things were going somewhere. I became fascinated with the apparent ramblings of a young boy and the letters sprinkled throughout the book, letters from his grandmother or grandfather and other people I couldn’t keep track of. But at some point it didn’t matter who wrote them but what was in them. Ramblings turned to life stories, turned to feelings, turned to tears in me.
The black and white photographs (ordinary things most of them, until the end of the book where some of them become so much more); the jumbled writing (I gave up on that, who wouldn’t, I wonder), the pages of numbers, crossed out words – all this make the book an interesting experience, almost as if the writer wanted to give the reader as complete an experience as possible. There’s Oskar’s cat, Buckminster, leaping in the air, two hands tattooed with the words YES and NO, and other pictures whose meaning I didn’t understand but accepted nevertheless. I loved how the whole book is a mix of locks, keys, doors, conversations that open you raw, light, shadows, handwritten letters, relationships and feelings, feelings, feelings.
Oskar’s quest does have an ending – dissatisfying as I thought it was, but some sort of closure. This book I felt, was not so much about him making peace with the death of his father as much as the reader being given the reason why things happened the way they did. Because in trying to have a look at Oskar’s father meant going deeper into the family history and having a look at Oskar’s grandfather, a man scarred so badly by war and a long lost love that he gave up a future because he couldn’t let go of his past. It’s as much a story about loss as it is about love and looking at it all through the eyes of a child.
Some of my favorite passages:
To my child: I’m writing this from where your mother’s father’s shed used to stand, the shed is no longer here, no carpets cover no floors, no windows in no walls, everything has been replaced. This is a library now, that would have made your grandfather happy, as if all of his buried books were seeds, from each book came one hundred.
It’s hard to say goodbye to the place you’ve lived. It can be as hard as saying goodbye to a person. We moved in after we were married. It had more room than his apartment. We needed it. We needed room for all of the animals, and we needed room between us.
The walls of the hallway were Nothing, even pictures need to disappear, especially pictures, but the hallway itself was Something, the bathtub was Nothing, the bathwater was Something, the hair on our bodies was Nothing, of course, but once it collected around the drain it was Something, we were trying to make our lives easier, trying, with all of our rules, to make life effortless.
She died in my arms, saying, “I don’t want to die.” That is what death is like. It doesn’t matter what uniforms the soldiers are wearing. It doesn’t matter how good the weapons are. I thought if everyone could see what I saw, we would never have war anymore.
My rating: 4/5 stars
Read in March 2015