The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

16/02/08, The Times

When Junot Díaz’s debut collection of stories, Drown, came out eleven years ago, it created an enormous splash. Here was a voice like no one else’s, everyone declared, for once, with perfect justification. Then he made the world wait eleven years for that first novel that would fulfill the promise of Drown and cement his reputation. And here it is, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a hyperactive, foul-mouthed, overwrought, overwritten, indomitable, incandescent masterpiece, the Midnight’s Children and the One Hundred Years of Solitude of the Dominican Republic.

It tells the story of three American-Dominicans: the impossibly obese, fantasy-fiction-obsessed nerd, Oscar, ground under the weight of his virginity and worn down by his futile quest to be rid of it; his sister, Lola, tall, leggy Amazon, a burning beauty who only wants to get away from her suffocating and punishing mother; and the mother herself, Belicia Cabral, broken by love in her home country, the first of the diaspora in our group of three, eking out a kind of life in Paterson, a Hispanic-Caribbean ghetto of New Jersey. All Oscar wants is to find a girlfriend and to become the next Tolkien, while Lola plans her exit, ‘desperate for [her] own patch of the world that had nothing to do with her [mother]’, a world that ‘existed beyond Paterson, beyond [her] family, beyond Spanish’. Oscar gets into Rutgers and Lola runs away, at the age of fourteen, only to be hauled back and sent off to the Dominican Republic. But the journey back, both literal and metaphoric, is not hers alone.

And through the tissue of the personal dramas of his characters, Díaz weaves the history of twentieth-century Dominican Republic, both in its obvious presence as a kind of scathing narrative unfolding through the footnotes, and in the more oblique way of how his characters come to get caught up in that history, participate in it, become its victims and survivors. This is a blistering novel, its language and style an effortless extension of the immense varieties of immigrant Englishes that have been appropriated for fiction, a high-octane, amphetamine-fuelled marriage of demotic Spanish and English that is equally at home with rough street slang and the domain of poetry. Its characters are unforgettable, its emotional impact both crushing and liberating at the same time, and the voice in which it speaks, a rare, new, spellbinding sound on the page altogether.