I decided to read this next as Pete has been asking me to so that we could talk about it together. I bought this early in 2010 when I was working at Waterstone’s, and I had intended to read it fairly swiftly, but it just sort of got lost among other things until now.
The story doesn’t just follow Oscar, though at points he does seem to be the focus of the tale and is at times the most pitiable character, but not all the time. The main idea behind the story is following the trials of the Cabral family from their ancestral homeland in the Dominican Republic to their new home in New Jersey. The time spans from the era of the brutal dictator Trujillo to the present day, tracing the course of several generations of family.
Although the novel is fiction, it is also closely interwoven with its historical setting. Diaz provides numerous footnotes throughout the pages when he feels some historical point requires further explanation. He is incredibly thorough, and best of all, these mini history lessons are told with such skill that you barely even realise you’re learning! To a lay person like me, who knows nothing about the history of the Dominican Republic, they are also totally necessary. Much of the historical detail itself is astonishing – I know you can’t know everything, and that the education system here has a bias towards white European history, but damn.
The sections of the novel focusing on Oscar were funny and sweet, and a quite sad too. A massive nerd, whose only desire in life is to have a girlfriend, I was rooting for him the entire time. His ‘sections’ and some of the others, are often peppered with sci-fi and fantasy references (I was delighted by the Stephen King ones, in particular) and while it’s pretty neat to recognise a reference and give yourself a little pat on the back, it’s not necessary to the understanding of the story. I’m not sure what else to say about Oscar without giving too much of the plot away, so I might leave it at that. Except to add that the changes he goes through as a child and a young man are just as amazing and in some ways as tragic as the histories of his other family members, and I was in the end surprised and impressed by Oscar’s transformation.
But to me the most interesting parts of the novel were the interactions and histories of daughter, mother and grandmother. Maybe it’s because of the troubles I have with my own mother, but for me the story really came alive during these parts. Not only were they realistic and compelling, but totally fraught with emotion. I know first hand that relationships between mothers and daughters can be complicated, but this is something else entirely. To these women, the line between love and hate is very fine, and a lot of their interactions seem to be based on how much cruelty they can endure from one another, and how they can rise above the constraints of their relationship with the previous generation.
At times I got a little lost with where the narration was going – there are a couple of points where I’m not entirely sure whose story is whose, or who’s narrating what, but it becomes clear eventually. I’m not sure it matters all that much since it all involves the same family. There is also a lot of colloquial Spanish used throughout the novel. At first I was tempted to look certain things up, but I decided not to. As someone who speaks French and a tiny bit of Spanish, there were certain bits and pieces that I could make out for myself. But ultimately, I found it more fun to just kind of imagine what was being said or referred to. Sometimes the sounds, when you try them out in your mouth, speak for themselves.
Sad, funny and totally engrossing.
Next up: Local by Brain Wood