Here I Am is such a complex, textured, immense story that it took me a while to formulate this review. My Goodreads review admits needing to sit with my feelings for a while, as I wasn’t quite sure how to do justice to the reading experience. That’s an idea of the impact this book had on me while I read, and until now, I’m still not sure I completely understand why. Here I Am is a doorstop of a book, 576 pages that feels longer because the author has packed so much in. It’s sprawling in scope in that it contextualizes protagonist Jacob Bloch’s wrestling with his Jewish identity within the framework of a war in the Middle East, yet it’s also intimate in focus in that the significance of world events are pulled back into the deterioration of the Bloch family.
Here I Am is a book that begs to be teased apart, one that compels the reader to confront the very real questions of identity, family and legacy that Jacob is facing. It’s a hefty volume that explores its issues explicitly, with extensive conversations between characters, yet that offers no easy answers. It’s a story to dive right into, yet not quite to lose oneself in.
What does it mean to be Jewish in North America? Jacob Bloch isn’t particularly devout, but being Jewish plays a big part in his concept of family, as something that spans generations from his father Isaac through him and his wife Julia and to their children. So it’s a big deal when their eldest son Sam decides he doesn’t want a bar mitzvah. Worse, Jacob feels his marriage to Julia deteriorating. In one scene, the narrator recounts almost two full pages of dialogue between the couple, each line revealing restrained affection and love, yet prefaces it with the phrase “if they’d said what they were thinking.” The scene ends thus:
But he didn’t say anything and neither did she. Not because the words were deliberately withheld but because the pipeline between them was too occluded for such bravery. Too many small accumulations, wrong words, absences of words… [p. 59]
I love this because I expected a big dramatic moment, yet a marriage declining because of a series of kind words left unspoken feels more real.
There’s enough drama within the family that I first wondered if including a subplot about conflict in the Middle East was even necessary. But then I realized that this subplot was key in highlighting how conflicted Jacob felt about how he expresses his Jewish identity. His life of comfort in America is contrasted with his cousin Tamir’s military service in Israel:
[Tamir had] grown up while Jacob had just grown in. He’d fought for his homeland, while Jacob spent entire nights debating whether that stupid New Yorker poster where New York is bigger than everything else would look better on this wall or that one. He tried not to get killed, while Jacob tried not to die of boredom. [p. 224]
Jacob is forced to confront this comparison when Tamir and his family come for a visit. At one point, Jacob says that Tamir and his family’s personality traits are “not their Israeliness… it’s just them,” but he clearly ascribes something to their “Israeliness,” a rather amorphous sense that they are more Jewish than he. I’m not Jewish, so I can’t say how this will resonate with Jewish readers, but it does resonate with me as an immigrant. How Filipino am I still now that I’ve become Canadian, and am I any less Filipino for having moved away? If I ever have children, how Filipino will they be, and in this era of globalization, how much does that even matter? These are questions I wonder about, and while I don’t know how other readers will respond, I do think there’s something in Jacob’s struggle that feels universal. The Middle Eastern conflict in Here I Am prompts Jacob to confront his comfortable lifestyle and ask himself how Jewish he can actually consider himself to be.
The title Here I Am comes from the story of Abraham, which is told in some variation across the three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam). God asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, when God comes looking for Abraham and his sacrifice, Abraham responds “Here I am.” As a Catholic, I learned that this story is about Abraham’s willingness to obey God, no matter the cost. According to Wikipedia (and, I believe, mentioned in the novel as well), many Jewish scholars teach that the story is about God testing Abraham’s loyalty, and that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son is him passing the test. In Here I Am, Israel calls for aid and Jacob faces his own test.
Here I Am is a thought-provoking, beautifully written novel that I recommend savouring. This is Foer’s first novel in eleven years, and well worth the wait.
Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.