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Book Review: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, By Junot Diaz

I’d been meaning to read this book for a long time. The critically acclaimed, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 2008 and I understand why.

Junot Diaz is a unique and fresh voice among contemporary writers. His writing is at various points in the narrative street-wise, incisive, academic, tender, and wickedly funny. “Oscar Wao” is the story of one family in Paterson, New Jersey, but it is also the tragic story of the Dominican Republic under the brutal regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo.

Oscar de Leon is an overweight teenager, a self-described Dominican geek and a romantic who pines after girls who won’t ever go out with him. He is a sympathetic protagonist with a fascination for science fiction and he aspires to be the “Dominican Tolkien.”

The story jumps around from the 1980s and 1990s, back in time to the late 1940s, when Oscar’s mother, Belicia Cabral, was a young girl. Her father, Abelard, a wealthy, refined doctor, is arrested and imprisoned by Trujillo for 18 years and Beli’s older sisters both die under suspicious circumstances. Beli is placed in foster care, where she is subjected to child slavery and cruelty before her father’s cousin, La Inca, rescues her.
The omniscient narrator of much of the book is later revealed to be Yunior, a former lover of Oscar’s sister, Lola, and Oscar’s former roommate at Rutgers.

Diaz intersperses numerous footnotes throughout the narrative, a technique that is risky as it takes the reader out of the story. The footnotes often offer historical context for the events in the story, a technique I believe Diaz uses to suggest that the terrible tragedies that befell many Dominican families were the consequences of the ruthless depravity of Trujillo. The dystopian world Oscar writes about in his science fiction works provides a striking parallel to the post-Trujillo Dominican Republic. The book begins with a discussion of the “fuku,” a curse that foreshadows the heartbreaking events that occur in the story.

And yet, in spite of the dark themes, Diaz’s message is one of hope. Oscar, who is a true believer in romantic love, risks everything for the love of a woman. It’s an admirable trait and one that endears him to the reader.

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