A fresh and original voice

2010-02-17 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Junot Diaz

Faber & Faber

WITH sadness and horror we now know a good deal about post-earthquake Haiti. We know, too, that ­before the cataclysm life wasn’t great for Haitians in overcrowded Port Au Prince and in the neglected countryside, mainly as a result of brutal despotism over many ­decades.

But as the maps on TV news show, Haiti is but a small part of the island as a whole, the rest being occupied by the Dominican Republic, capital Santo Domingo. Is that any different, any better?

Junot Diaz was born in Santo ­Domingo, grew up and was educated in the United States, and won a ­Pulitzer Prize and an American Book Critics Circle Award for this novel, which carries the reader from the ­Dominican Republic to New­ ­Jersey and back again.

It’s a multi-generational saga about members of a Dominican ­family exiled during the murderous 31-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo, and it is, as an American critic has said, “radiant with the hard lives of those who leave and also those who stay behind”.

Oscar Wao himself is a “ghetto nerd”, a bright boy who dreams of ­becoming the next Tolkien (and the book is replete with allusions to the Ring trilogy, and to much other English literature: you need to be a bit of a nerd yourself to enjoy it fully), who is disastrously overweight and keeps falling hopelessly in love. His punk sister Lola constantly plans to run away, and his resolute mother Beli can’t seem to let either of them go.

Diaz is funny about everything: abuse, torture, maltreatment, poverty, self-loathing, despair. For him, clearly, this is a way of coping with the experiences of his own family ­under Trujillo, experiences that ­otherwise would be unbearably ­harrowing to write about. And yet he does it with such love, such feeling, that the accounts of the cruelties and injustices of Beli’s earlier life are among the most deeply affecting parts of the novel.

Stylish, witty, original, Diaz’s voice has a freshness and energy that should delight even the most jaded reader.

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