Knowing little to nothing about the Dominican Republic—its culture, its politics—does not hinder one’s enjoyment of Junot Díaz’s masterfully tragicomic account of the far-reaching influences of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship. Narrated in a streetwise, slang-infused, Spanglish-laced voice, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a beauty of a book; an ambitious, high-achieving novel, grand in scope and humanistic in its depiction of an immigrant family.
The novel is several stories in one, chronicling the cursed family history of the de Léons from the Dominican Republic to the slums of New Jersey and back again. The family’s legacy has been cursed with fúku (which translates to “bad luck”), which condemns them to political persecution, torture, personal tragedy and ill-fated love affairs. Oscar de Léon is a shy, overweight sci-fi geek and aspiring novelist who dreams of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien, and whose naïve quest for romance and personal fulfillment leads him down a self-destructive path. His closest friend is his sister, Lola, who endeavors to travel to escape the squalor of their hometown, as well as the dysfunction within the family. Their fierce, temperamental mother, Belicia, is a weathered survivor of Trujillo’s regime, and of wildly turbulent teen years involving a dangerous gangster boyfriend. Belicia’s deeply religious mother, La Inca, strives to be a pillar among chaos and is pushed to the limits by her family’s struggles.
Díaz makes extensive use of footnotes to detail the history of the Dominican Republic—primarily the sprawling era of Trujillo’s reign—and at times just for some humorous commentary. Though these footnotes are not essential in understanding the story at hand, they do add background and educational value to the culture and the characters the novel delves into; virtually a history lesson made fun with the help of the de Léons.
Díaz also intertwines a touch of the supernatural within the narrative, at times in allegorical form, such as the comparison of the fall of Trujillo to the fall of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition to the de Leon fúku, there are instances of divine intervention spanning generations, and possible salvation at the novel’s end. Whether the family overcomes the fúku and moves on to a brighter future is ultimately up to readers’ interpretations.
Absorbing, tragic and darkly funny, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a masterwork of storytelling and an enlightening look into the far-reaching psychological effects of many forms of oppression. I would definitely recommend it to fantasy and sci-fi geeks who would have an easier time understanding all the pop culture references than I did.