Review: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It has been years since I have been so utterly challenged by a book. Junot Diaz breaks almost every conventional rule of literature—the story is nonlinear; characters are not major historical players despite being set in a historical moment of great change; mixes vulgarities with nerdy references in a way guaranteed to exclude most highbrow readers; jumps around in narration; makes frequent reference to a book most people probably hasn’t read, even if they should (In the Time of the Butterflies); avoids most dialogue punctuation—and yet transcends most books. Read this book to have your mind blown in the best possible way.

I had four years of Spanish in high school and it wasn’t enough, because they don’t teach words like “toto,” “puta,” and “culo” in high school (“pussy,” “whore,” and “ass.” You’ll need them in this book)—though Diaz presents a compelling reason to include them in the next lesson. I’ve never made such frequent use of Google translate as I did with this book, and many times there were words even there that couldn’t be looked up, that only brought up annotations for this very book.

But even if you don’t stop to look up all the words you don’t know, Diaz beautifully and elegantly communicates the feeling of being each character, of dealing with their struggles and their particular viewpoint. It’s rare that you can see inside a whole family in this way, each against each other and yet tied together as one unit, each struggling with their own challenges yet determined to be a united front against the world.

The title of this book and the blurb makes it seem like this is the story of one character—Oscar “Wao”—but that’s misleading. I’m not even sure, except for the end, that Oscar can be said to be the main character. No, this is a story about a family, individually and together, and about the legacy of immigration–both blessing and curse–that has impacted them all. It is a powerful and moving tale–even if it does stretch the limits of your translator.

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