fiction, reviews

Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Junot Diaz
340 pages
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: 2007
Source: Library

They say it came first from Africa, carried in the screams of the enslaved; that it was the death bane of the Tainos, uttered just as one world perished and another began; that it was a demon drawn into Creation through the nightmare door that was cracked open in the Antilles. Fukú americanus, or more colloquially, fukú−generally a curse or a doom of some kind; specifically the Curse and the Doom of the New World.

I have to admit this wasn’t my first time I tried to read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I picked this book up a few years ago but couldn’t get into it. By chance I somehow ended up listening to a sample of the UK audio version. I couldn’t believe this was the same book I put down so long ago. Within minutes I bought the audio book. Though I knew it wouldn’t and couldn’t arrive fast enough, I practically ran to my library and picked up their only copy.

When readers first met the main character Oscar de Leon, he’s a cute seven year-old girl-crazy kid. The older he becomes, the more his looks go until he’s an obese young adult in love with fanfiction, sci-fi, and everything else his family feels he shouldn’t bother with. Call it the fukú (curse) or call it life, but either way Oscar is a loner and the only person who understands him is his older sister Lola. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a multigenerational story that covers the lives of Oscar, Lola, and their mother Beli from the Dominican Republic to New Jersey and back again.

The book surpassed my expectations. It’s not just a novel but also a history book, telling the era of dictator Rafael Trujillo who ruled the Dominican Republic for more than thirty bloody years.  The book includes footnotes that luckily don’t distract readers away from Oscar’s story. They’re there to educate readers who probably don’t know much about Dominican history and also to illustrate how the Trujillo Era affected Dominicans and Haitians along with the role the United States played in Trujillo’s rise to power. The footnotes also explain references to Lord of the Rings, Watchmen, and more.

This book isn’t about just Trujillo. It’s about the de Leon family and how they come to be who they are: Oscar the “ghetto”, Lola the rebel, Beli the dominant mom who has nothing good to say about anything, and La Inca, Beli’s aunt who raised Beli as her own child. Told from the perspectives of Lola and Yuῇior, Lola’s ex-boyfriend, the switch in perspective can be confusing at times, but I caught on pretty fast.

Another thing that stands out besides the footnotes is the heavy use of Spanish by the author. Diaz does a great job in bringing authenticity to the book with the mixture of English and Spanish. He makes it easy to under the gist of what is being said. After reading the book, I read interviews with the author. In one interview Diaz wrote that the inclusion of Spanish was to make an “immigrant” of the reader, for the reader to come to an understanding of how hard it is to not only learn a new language, but also a culture. I also read that Diaz struggled for years to learn English fluently. As a native English reader you get pushed out of your comfort zone as you try to grasp the meaning of each word. It can make for slow reading but it’s worth it. This isn’t a book that you should speed through.

As great as the book is, one thing that bothered me was the use of the “n” word. When I first started reading the book, I was taken aback by it the heavy use of it. But I pushed through. I wanted to know how important and also why is this word being used.  So I did a little cyber-stalking by reading more interviews and found that growing up in the United States in the 80s, the kids in Diaz’s neighborhood used English, Spanish, and what they thought of as “slang” to express themselves.

This has got to be the longest review ever on 1330v. If you haven’t read it, I think you should.

One of my favorite passages of the book:

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. Within hours of El Jefe dancing bien pegao with those twenty-seven bullets, his minions ran amok−fulfilling, as it were, his last will and vengeance. A great darkness descended on the Island and for the third time since the rise of Fidel people were being rounded up by Trujillo’s son, Ramfis, and a good plenty were sacrificed in the most depraved fashion imaginable, the orgy of terror funeral goods for the father from the son. Even a woman as potent as La Inca, who with the elvish ring of her will had forged within Banί her own personal Lothlόrien, knew that she could not protect the girl against a direct assault from the Eye. . .And perhaps it was the strain of her final prayer, but each time La Inca glanced at the girl she could swear that there was a shadow standing just behind her shoulder which disappeared as soon as you tried to focus on it. A dark horrible shadow that gripped her heart. And it seemed to be growing.

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21 thoughts on “Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao”

  1. Can’t wait to read this now. I bought it about a year ago, but hadn’t seen any reviews of it. Thanks for a fab review.

  2. I’ve heard the title of this book mentioned several times. There’s something very appealing about the title. Yet, I had never read a review of it. I’d love to read this one sometime. I have to admit that the passage you quoted made me reconsider trying to pick it up anytime soon: it does seem like the writing isn’t very easy to follow.

  3. I’m so glad you loved this book. Like you, I found it difficult getting through some of the language and at first had a hard time understanding Diaz’s use of Spanish. But his idea of making an “immigrant” of the reader? Just brilliant. Now I want to read it again!

  4. I have heard amazing things about this book and am so glad that it was such a good read for you! Your review was lovely and it makes me want to go right out and grab my own copy!! I will be adding this one to the wish list! Thanks for the excellent review!

  5. I’ve never felt compelled to read this one before now, but now I want to! Thanks so much for a great review. I love the idea of making an immigrant of the reader- I think Shaun Tan’s The Arrival does the same (but without words), and I just recently finished that one. Glad to know the audiobook is good, too!

  6. I am very eager to read this one. In fact I recently bought it because of you — even though I’ve heard about it before around the blogosphere! When you mentioned in previous blog posts (and on twitter) that it relates to the Dominican Republic, my eyes really perked up. That’s because I recently read “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez which also deals with the Trujillo era. So, I was really looking forward to what you thought of this book.

    Sounds like I’ll have to load an Spanish/English dictionary app on my iPhone when I finally get to start.

  7. I’ve heard good things about this and like you tried to read it a while ago. Guess I’ll have to move it from that pile over there to this pile over here.

  8. Great review! I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get my hands on this book! I saw an interview of Junot Diaz on one of the spanish channels last year and he just seems so interesting. After hearing him I knew I wanted to read his book. One of these days!

  9. Thank you for the wonderful review. This book is already on my TBR list and I look forward to reading it one day. It sounds like I won’t be disappointed, when I do.

  10. I hit a snag with this one, probably stopping a centimeter in, or so. It feels like a “mood” kind of thing–I know I’ll return to the book, but I really don’t know yet. I know it’s good, but that’s just not getting to me right now.

    Still, YAY for you. :]

  11. Fantastic review, Vasilly. I’m so glad you loved this as much as I did. I’m really curious to try Díaz’s short stories.

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