Oscar is a fat nerdy Dominican kid, living in New Jersey with aspirations of becoming the next JRR Tolkein. Life isn’t easy for him, with disloyal friends, a cranky mother and a complete lack of female interest. Perhaps more worrying than this is the fuku – the curse that has tormented his family for generations. His only real ally is Lola, his big sister, who has troubles of her own to contend with.
This book is mostly written from the perspective of Yunior, our fictional narrator. It is unusual in that it is written as Yunior would speak, peppered with Spanish slang, geeky comic book references and plenty of footnotes about Dominican History. Incidentally, the footnotes are written by Yunior, not Diaz himself and therefore are to be read as part of the story.
Yunior starts off by telling us about Oscar’s childhood. From here the book moves on to Lola’s story, Oscar’s mum’s story, Oscar’s Grandparents’ story before moving onto Yunior himself and then back to Oscar. This is a peculiar structure for a novel, but not unheard of and it’s one that works really well in this case
It was interesting to learn about the history of the Dominican Republic (I knew zilch beforehand) but the slang and cultural references made it a good fun way of reading. There’s a touch of magical realism added by the fuku, but this is mostly a sub-plot.
There’s tragedy here, but humour too and in Oscar, Junot Diaz has created an entertaining anti-hero. The villain of the book is really Trujillo, the real life dictator of Dominican Republic until 1952 who’s actions impact on Oscar, and ordinary Dominicans to this day.
“His adolescent nerdiness vaporizing any iota of a chance he had for young love. Everybody else going through the terror and joy of their first crushes, their first dates, their first kisses while Oscar sat in the back of the class, behind his DM’s screen, and watched his adolescence stream by. Sucks to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years.”
If you like the cultural history you might like Memoirs of a Geisha
If you like the magical realism you might like One Hundred Years of Solitude
If you like the story’s structure you might like Cloud Atlas
If you like the cultural references you might like Coconut Unlimited