Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao


The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao won the Pultizer Prize for Fiction in 2008. The protagonist, Oscar, is an overweight American boy (with Dominican roots), who aspires to be the next Tolkien. His interests include writing passionately, role-playing games, comic books, sci-fi and fantasy, and of course, women. However, one bad experience with his first love meant his adolescent nerdliness vaporising any iota of a chance he had for young love. He lives in New Jersey with his demanding difficult-to-please mother, Belicia, and his rebellious punk sister, Lola. 

While the protagonist of this book is Oscar, it’s narrated by Yunior – Oscar’s roommate from college, as well as a love interest of Lola. Also, this is not a book about “the brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao” – instead, it’s an epic story of the curse (fukú) that Oscar’s family has been subject to, for the past two generations, in the hands of Trujillo, a dictator in the Dominican Republic in the mid-1900s.

This is a book rich in history, cultural references and social comparisons.

That’s white people for you. They lose a cat and it’s an all-points bulletin, but we Dominicans, we lose a daughter and we might not even cancel our appointment at the salon.

We learn of the hardships the family has faced, the co-incidental misfortunes that have befallen each of the members, the lucklessness and hopelessness that seems to embrace all the characters, and how everything is ascribed to fukú – its only counterspell being zafa – which, the narrator admits, that the book might be.

I wonder if this book ain’t a zafa of sorts. My very own counterspell.

More importantly, the book is an insight into the harsh rule of Trujillo, a man who

took your wife houses, your properties, put your pops and your moms in jail. Well, it was because he wanted to f- the beautiful daughter of the house. And your family wouldn’t let him!

So, despite the fukú that Oscar is under, the past overshadows his present, and the importance of the migration to the States, as well as the hardships his mother has undergone is the predominant story. Oscar’s presence, in the grand scheme of things, is “brief” and debatably “wondrous”.

Yunior (the narrator) speaks (writes) in colloquial english, with Dominican words and phrases scattered throughout the narrative. All the historical references are accompanied with footnotes, to give context to the events that occur, and this makes the book more real, more interesting, and ultimately, more thought-provoking. I don’t know much about Dominican history, and I haven’t read any book about DR before. Reading this book has actually been an informative and enriching experience. Dare I say, even wondrous?

The only problem I had with the book was some of the Dominican phrases/words that were left unexplained. I could more-or-less guess what was being said, but, in some cases, I wasn’t sure at all. Additional footnotes might have been handy there, if including those references in the main text would break the flow.

Rating: B

18 Responses to “Junot Diaz – The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao”

  1. I’ve only just read this book as well, and as you’ve put it, the Spanglish was rather ‘in the way’ of an otherwise very enjoyable and thought-provoking book. I did manage to find a webpage (link HERE) that had most of the annotations I needed.

    I like that quote you pulled about losing cats and daughters. I had to laugh when I read that sentence. It’s sadly true, but just ironically funny, in a sarcastic sort of way.

    I had a little trouble when I was writing a post on my thoughts about this book. Sort of didn’t quite know what to say. I think you’ve done a good job here. =)

    • Ah cool – as I was mostly reading on the tube, I didn’t have much opportunity to double-check everything that was being said. I just guessed most of it, and figured I’m about half-way right!


  2. 3 historyofshe

    I recently put this on my TBR list. I’m happy to see that it was good, but I totally understand about the unexplained terms. Ugh!

  3. 5 Sasha

    I just started this book this afternoon (I live in South East Asia), a few hours ago. I wanted to like it, and so I trudged on even though the tone and language took a little adjustment for me. I am liking the characters so far, Lola, especially. :)

    Happy New Year, New Decade! :)

    • The first time I started the book, I gave up pretty quickly. Started it again, and enjoyed it a lot more second time ’round. Lola’s a great character! Hope you finish the book, and enjoy it.

      • So far, I’m liking it. Experiencing some lags, yes, but the book seems like a book that rewards greatly just by sticking with it. :)

  4. This one is on my list. That first quote you shared stands out to me.

  5. I loved this book. I read it in 2009 after having had it on my shelf for some time, which I didn’t quite understand why after I finally sat down and read it, because I really liked it a lot. The Spanglish was hard to understand sometimes, since I do not speak neither English nor Spanish, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It was probably one of the best reads of 2009.

    • Am glad you liked it. I’ve seen some very mixed reviews about this book, and am glad I finally read it. I agree about the Spanglish, but, methinks it’s a minor point (in retrospect, of course).

  6. I’m planning to read this too, but am a bit worried about the Spanish – I know nothing at all! I can normally work things out if they are in French or German, but we have no Spanish here in the UK, so can see that it might be even more of a problem for me. I hope I can at least work out what is going on!

    • I can normally work out French. Not that great with Spanish or German (or Italian). Think it’s easy to work out what’s going on for the most part. I went mainly on guesswork!

      Looking forward to reading what you think of it :)

  7. I’ve not read this one but have heard really divergent points of view on it. Hmmm. i shall continue waddling over whether or not I should look into reading it for some time now.

    I do wish people would provide translations for words and such in books! I am ok with Spanish, usually, and with a lot of the Indian language words. But Maori in a lot of the NZ books is just WAY over my head!

    • I’d read loads of negative reviews about it, and couldn’t be bothered to finish it the first time I started it. The re-read went much better than anticipated!

      Don’t think I’ve read much (if anything) with Maori references (my Kiwi literature knowledge is limited to Lloyd Jones). Sounds tough though…

  8. I’m thrilled that your second attempt at reading this was successful and that you actually did fit it in before the end of 2009 – I find that even more impressive! Although that’s what freedom of reading is all about, where you can pick up the next book that takes your fancy… something I am striving for again.

    I had the same issue with the language too and relied on guess-work a lot. I can usually get by with French although a book I’ve just finished ended in French and I had the jist but went straight to Babelfish to confirm, just in case I had misunderstood (and I had the tense, which was fairly important).

    • I think my first attempt failed as I wasn’t in the mood for the historical subject this book deals with. It really is a lovely book. Also, I think I was a tad put-off by the Spanish references which I couldn’t quite decipher. The second attempt was totally worth it.

      I’m going to be picking up books more randomly this year – did at least one challenge last year, which meant I didn’t enjoy all the books I read… and there’s not much point in that!

      Footnotes/an appendix, in that kind of a scenario would be nice. Babelfish is handy, but, if you’re doing most of your reading while commuting, and even 3G doesn’t work, it can be somewhat annoying.

  9. @Sasha : I’m so glad that you’re enjoying it. I really do think sticking with this book pays off.

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