Jul 15, 2008

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is the story of Oscar Cabral, an overweight, nerdy, and utterly atypical Dominican aspiring sci-fi and fantasy author who lives in New Jersey. It’s also the story of his sister, Lola, of his mother, Beli, of La Hija, who brought her up, and of the lives Oscar’s grandparents lead in the Dominican Republic under the dominance of dictator Rafael Trujillo.

The story moves back and forth in time, with different sections focusing on different characters and offering different points of view. Lola’s section is narrated in the first person, and it took me a while to realize who the other first person narrator was. And if this sounds confusing, don’t worry, it isn’t. The structure works perfectly the way it is. And the more you learn about the characters’ backgrounds and about the past, the more significant things become, the more power the story gains.

Reading this book taught me so much about the Dominican Republic. I knew there had been a dictatorship there for a great part of the twentieth century, but I had no idea about the specifics. I didn’t know any of the horrifying details – the genocide of the Haitians, the rape of young girls, the senseless brutality. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is full of horror, tragedy, loss, death, unspeakable violence. But it’s also full of humour, life, energy, love, even hope. It’s a book that made me laugh and made me cry, both alternately and simultaneously.

Plus, it has just a touch of magic realism, which is something that always gives a book cool points in my book. Oscar’s family believes they are the victims of fukú, a very powerful Dominican curse. And plus there are the inexplicable apparitions of the Golden Mongoose.

And if all of this wasn’t enough, there are all the nerdy references: to the Twilight Zone, to comics, to Lloyd Alexander, to Ursula Le Guin, to the Sandman, to Dune, to The Lord of the Rings. How could I not love a book with sentences like “…and a guardedness so Minas Tirith in la pequeña that you’d need the whole of Mordor to overcome it” or “Closed his eyes (or maybe he didn’t) and when he opened them there was something straight out of Ursula Le Guin standing by his side. Later, when he would describe it, he would call it the Golden Mongoose, but even he knew that wasn’t what it was.”

There was just one tiny thing I had a bit of a problem with. At one point the narrator tells us:
At the end of The Return of the King, Sauron’s evil was taken by “a great wind” and neatly “blown away”, with no lasting consequences to our heroes; but Trujillo was too powerful, too toxic a radiation to be dispelled so easily. Even after death his evil lingered.
This made me wonder if perhaps we’d read different versions of The Return of the King. You can perhaps say that The Lord of the Rings doesn't leave too much room for ambiguity, and that Sauron is the ultimate one-dimensional villain. I don’t care, though, because the books are so completely awesome in so many other ways. You cannot say, however, that at the end the bad guys vanish and that all the terrible things that happened leave no enduring consequences. You really can’t. Taken out of contest, this passage could give you the impression that all the nerdy references are given in a mocking, superior, dismissive “look at how silly and unlike real life all this stuff is” tone. But that isn’t the case at all. I’d have been very annoyed and disappointed if it were. And it's exactly because that isn’t the case that I was surprised with that passage.

But anyway. This is a great book. One thing: there’s a lot of Spanish in the text. And I mean a lot. It made me wonder if readers who don’t understand it would feel lost and/or annoyed after a while, but raych said it didn’t happen. Most of the time the context does seem enough to make the meaning of what’s being said clear enough.

I feel like I’m doing a lousy job explaining what this book actually is about. But that’s because it’s about so many things. About immigration, about love and loneliness and longing, about living under a horrifying dictatorial regime, about parents and children, about loss, about death. I loved loved loved the very ending. The thing about the little unexpected intimacies. I can’t say more without giving too much away, but you know when you think you couldn’t enjoy a book more, and then the very ending makes you like it all that much more? I love it when that happens.

Other Blog Reviews:

books i done read
Jottings from Jan
The Bluestocking Society
Scooter Chronicles
Care's Online Bookclub
So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Casual Dread
dreaming out loud
Everyday Reads
Trish's Reading Nook
Valentina's Room
Scooter Chronicles
A Novel Menagerie
Linus's Blanket

(Have you reviewed it as well? Please let me know and I'll add your link to this list.)


  1. A friend of mine read this not too long ago, and while she liked it, especially the stuff about the Dominican Republic, she said that she felt like she probably didn't "get" everything the book was trying to say. As I tend to doubt my abilities in "getting" the deeper stuff all the time, I figured this probably wasn't a book for me. But now you've gone and left me really wanting to read it!

  2. I thimk you did a great job with taht review. I've heard SO MUCH about this book, but interestingly I had no idea what it was really about! You've cleared it up for me, and it sounds like a winner.

  3. I've been curious about this book, and now I know I'd like to read it. I'd like to learn more about the Dominican Republic, and you know I like books with that "touch of magical realism," too.

  4. I've been wanting to read this book but know really little about it. Sounds like a beautiful read! McCarthy is an author that uses a bit of spanish (or a lot depending on the book) and I've often wondered how much I'm missing out. When I did a term paper on his The Crossing I did a lot of translating (poorly done through the Internet) and realized I was missing out some, but I'm not sure if it changed anything for me. Do you speak any Spanish?

  5. Debi: I think you get stuff just fine! But like your friend I did have the impression that there were a few things that I missed, especially because I was so unfamiliar with the cultural context. But I learned a lot from this book, and it was such a good read!

    Andi: Thank you :) And it's definitely a winner.

    Robin: I think you'd enjoy this one!

    Trish: I don't speak it, but the vocabulary is similar enough to Portuguese that when it's written I understand about 90% of it. Plus I have some practice from being forced to read textbooks in Spanish :P Phonetically the two languages are very different, though, so when it's spoken I have a lot more trouble. I still get the gist of what's being said, but it depends on the particular variety of Spanish and on how fast it's being spoken.

  6. Like some of the other folks have said, I've heard a lot of discussion about this book, but I didn't know what it was about until your review - and it's gone straight to The List.
    The use of multiple languages or dialects can be a stumbling block sometimes, but when the story requires it and the author uses it to further the story, I don't see it as an issue...
    "...but you know when you think you couldn’t enjoy a book more, and then the very ending makes you like it all that much more?"
    That's all you needed to say!

  7. You did a great review of the book Nymeth. I saw an interview with the writer on a Spanish language station and that's how the book had ended up on my list but I didn't realize all of the aspects the book touched upon which you were able to get out of the book. And, like you, I'm a fan of magical realism so that's a good thing :)

  8. I personally thought your review was great!! I've heard a lot of good things about this one. I hope to get to it soon!

  9. I've been wondering about this book. I have heard both positive and negative feedback about it. It does sound like an interesting premise though and so I'll likely give it a try. Great review, Nymeth.

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  11. Ohh I haven't heard of this one and it sounds really interesting. I don't know anything about the Dominicon Republic so I guess this will be my education much like Persepolis was for my Iranian history. I like that it references nerdy stuff but do agree with you about the quote you highlighted. There were many consequences for those who fought against Sauron. Will put this on my list thanks and hope I can get through the Spanish!

  12. I'm intrigued! I will have to add this book to my TBR list.

  13. Ken: Yes, when used well multiple languages are really not a problem. I hope you enjoy this one!

    Iliana: Thanks! The touch of magic realism is very slight. I thought it was such an enjoyable book in so many ways. I hope you think so too!

    Stephanie, thank you. I'm looking forward to your thoughts on this one!

    Literary Feline: I'd heard both positive and negative feedback too. I was happy to find myself agreeing with the positive comments! I hope you enjoy it too.

    Rhinoa: It was the same for me. I knew almost nothing about Iran before Persepolis too. That's one more good thing about reading! And yes, there definitely were consequences. Frodo's wound, what happened to the Shire, you name it.

    Andrea, I hope you enjoy it when you get to it :)

  14. Hi Nymeth :)
    I have never read this author also I have seen his covers, just never picked it up. I will now.
    I am happy to be back and able to visit and participate again.
    In a few weeks i will send you THE MONKEY HOUSE by Vonnegut as part of BAFAB beings I was not able to participate, 2 other books go to some of our blog friends.

  15. The 'nerdy references' really make me want to read this one. I love books that do that and do it well.

  16. Hi Madeleine! Thank you so much! You're too kind. It's so nice to have you back :)

    Carl: Me too! And this one certainly does it well.

  17. Excellent review! This one has been on Mt. TBR for awhile. Hopefully the Spanish won't "get to me" when I finally do read it.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.