The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Most of the time I’m wary of books that have won numerous awards purely because reading is fraught with subjectivity; what I enjoy reading may not be to someone else’s taste and that’s a good thing. It makes for interesting conversations and lively debates. However, in the case of Oscar Wao (a book that took Junot Diaz eleven years to complete and which has been the recipient of many notable awards, including the Pulitzer Prize), I am of the general consensus the acclaim it has enjoyed is entirely justified.

In truth, this is not the type of book I would usually read. My natural tendency leans more towards classic literature simply because I find myself familiar with that beast after four years of studying it. Reading contemporary fiction is new to me in so many ways and, having made it a personal goal to read those books I wouldn’t usually attempt, I cautiously approached Oscar Wao.

Oscar Wao is a novel that opens eyes to a different way of telling a story. Diaz is a superb writer, with an uncanny knack for pace and a resonating voice that lingers long after. As the title suggests, the novel follows ‘the brief wondrous life’ of our protagonist Oscar de Leon, also known as Oscar Wao.

In Wao, Diaz has cleverly constructed a character familiar to many. Oscar is an overweight, sci-fi obsessed, bookish nerd who has zero luck with the ladies. He is also a budding writer; yet this does nothing to improve his image. The story moves fluidly between the Dominican Republic and modern America, telling the story of Oscar’s family – who are adamant their consistent stream of bad luck is due to an irrevocable curse placed upon them.

It is a sad, moving tale about family, freedom and love, written in short vibrant prose. Diaz makes the reader feel as if he is in conversation with them alone; as though you’re sitting in a bar somewhere and he happens to tell this amazing story. The palpable sense of loneliness and hopelessness are balanced perfectly with wit and consolation. Diaz’s attention to detail in retelling Dominican history never feels dry or irrelevant; indeed, every aspect of the book works in tangent with the next.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a book difficult to pigeonhole; a misfit perhaps, just like its protagonist, and I suspect, its author too.

Book review by Annette Ong


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