Posted on April 27, 2009 - by MG
Here’s a book I’d been waiting to read until it came out in paperback and I had a really good stretch of uninterrupted time to enjoy it. Now I know I don’t usually blog about new books, because well, there are so many brilliant book review blogs, I’d rather leave that to them.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (by Junot Diaz) though, was a crystal-exploding-in-my-cortex type of book. You know when you feel like a book was written specially for you?
This one won the Pulitzer Prize, too. So it must be good.
Reading Oscar Wao felt to me like reading a funky hip take on Gabriel Garcia Marquez/Mario Vargas Llosa, set to a reggaeton rhythm…but about a character whose references were straight out of my own young-adulthood; Dungeons and Dragons, Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, Watchmen, Lord of the Rings.
To my young blog readers – this is probably one to save until you are an adult. I would NOT want you to tell your parents I recommended this book. Like many works of Latin American literature, especially those set in brutal dicatorships, there are tales of violent atrocities and some extremely ‘adult’ situations.
To the old fogeys among you, READ THIS! It’s probably unlike any book you’ve ever read. It’s unlike any book I’ve ever read but then I can’t imagine there being another book like it.
Here’s the story: Oscar is a fat nerdy boy growing up in New Jersey. He adores comic books, fantasy role-playing games and sci-fi, he also falls hopelessly in love with girls all over the place but to no avail. Oh the shame of it, because he for all his geekery he is still a Dominican (from the Dominican Republic – it’s the Spanish part of the island of Hispaniola, the other half is French/African Haiti).
Dominican men are meant to be super-macho! They’re akin to Afo-Cubans – part African, part Spanish – 100% macho. Oscar’s mum nods with approval when aged 7 he dates two little girls at once. Once they dump him, Oscar’s romantic life is effectively over. Until much later, when fate returns him to the island of his heritage – and final destiny.
The story of Oscar is narrated with dispassionate energy by Yunior, a close friend. It’s not just Oscar’s tale but the island story of his mother and grandfather, just two of the many, many victims of the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. Hideous horrible violent and utterly unjust things happen to his mother and her family. It’s all described by Yunior with the pitiless yet sympathetic omniscience that is similar to the sweeping narratives of Garcia Marquez and Vargas Llosa. More minimalism though, which I like. Which I admire, too.
Historical footnotes provide more information – and it’s here that the voice becomes irreverently venomous. The DR sure was a total rathole (putting it VERY mildly) during Trujillo’s reign, a nightmare totalitarian state where justice ceased to exist and fear ruled supreme.
In common with other Great Writers, it’s not just the power of the story but the evidence of wisdom, shrewd observations of depths of human truths which mark out this author. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Note to authors. Set your story in a totalitarian state and watch as plot just falls out. When every single person might legitimately be a liar who is about to feed your hero to a torture machine, the streets are paved with pure High Drama.