The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I came to read Diaz’s novel simply from googling the best books to read from the 21st Century and up it came on the ‘Top Ten’ list rather like ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ which I’m also reading. Well, ‘Oscar Wao’ got a Pulitzer for the author so it’s hard to argue with that but…personally, I wouldn’t have rated the book that highly.
Part of the reason is this is yet another novel where the story-line is just an excuse to tell the history of some country or people – in this case that of the Dominican Republic. This is okay in itself but the model is getting old and no longer feels as innovative as once it did.
Equally important though is that the characters failed to grip me. While Oscar Wao can’t be said to have lived to old age, his life isn’t that brief and certainly isn’t ‘wondrous’. There’s elements of supernatural that go nowhere, the principal romance (between the author and Wao’s sister) is unsatisfying and irrelevant throughout, and a couple of times he hands over the storytelling to that same sister, Lola, for no apparent reason. Diaz throws in a final ‘mystery’ right at the end of the novel which is totally unnecessary and seems to delight in self-deprecating statements and making the characters rather failed in themselves – a device which itself is hackneyed now and no longer impacts on the reader in the same way it did a few decades ago. In short: there’s nothing new in how this book presents.
All that said (and you’d think that was enough for me to rate the book pretty low), I liked it and I don’t know why! Some things I can guess: I like history and I knew nothing about the Dominican Republic before this, so it was fascinating to read; the style is witty and easy to read (apart from passages in Spanish which took a little longer to get). Other than that though I can’t say. It was an enjoyable book pore over and I can see why it has been popular and highly praised.
So Oscar Wao, in real life just as in fiction, is an oddity and conundrum. I don’t think I’d go back to read this novel again, nor would it be first on my list of books to recommend to others, yet at the same time I don’t think anyone reading it will be disappointed. It’s a good yarn, entertains as much as it educates, and feels the right length – you’re happy to leave these characters as they are and not worry too much about unanswered questions or possibilities for the future.
So I give this four stars for the skill Diaz has shown in crafting an engaging style which works. But were I to mark on originality or ‘hit-the-reader-hard-in-the-gut’ writing? Well, it ain’t no Pulitzer, no matter what the facts say.
Writer and journalist D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page.
Both ‘The Old Man on the Beach’ and ‘Sonali’ are available on Amazon for kindle and paperback. Published by Shopno Sriti Media.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at email@example.com