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The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

by Junot Diaz

There are times when we can do no better than look to the title of a book for the perfect summary of it. THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO is just such a book. Here we have the bittersweet fictional biography of Oscar de Léon (nicknamed Wao by the school bullies), a loveable geek who lives with his Dominican-American family in New Jersey and whose life was doomed from start to finish – not least because of ‘the Fuku,’ a curse that has for many years haunted his family.

Meanwhile, the narrative also tells us the tragic story of Oscar’s mother, Belicia Cabral, and her reasons for fleeing the Dominican Republic in the early 1960s, as well as snippets about Oscar’s ‘punk’ sister, Lola – two feisty female protagonists who balance the otherwise negative depiction of women in the novel via the romantic conquests of Oscar’s friend, Yunior (who narrates much of the story), and the numerous failed conquests of Oscar himself.

But Junot Diaz’s debut novel is more than just the entertaining tale of the short time on earth of ‘ghetto nerd’ Oscar – it is also characterized by sparkling good humour and a genuine warmth, and it pulsates with energy and invention: footnotes appear throughout, mainly conveying historical facts and anecdotes about the history of the Dominican Republic - but also providing titbits from comic books and sci-fi marginalia. Another technical device is that there are smatterings of words and phrases in Spanish in the main narrative, with no translation for the non-Hispanics or the non-linguists among us. These technical tricks may not be every booklover’s cup of tea, but, for this reviewer at least, it’s rewarding to find a novel in which the author focuses the reader’s attention on more than just a good story.

A last point to note is that although the title gives away Oscar’s end, the story nonetheless has a compelling, and driving narrative. Hailed as a ‘true literary triumph,’ THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007. Its warmth, good humour and originality has also won it an army of devoted readers – I count myself as one.

Nina de la Mer

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