Honestly, I have to say that once you start reading a book it has to be terrible before you put it down and decide not to read it anymore at all. Actually, that only happened a few times in my life. Then there are books that you start reading and you can’t put down because they are so well written and hold your attention for a very long time – and even after finishing it. This one falls into a very special category, because “The Brief Wondrous Life” by Junot Diaz is definitely not an easy book. It takes a long time to get into it, mainly because it’s written in a very unique style with lots of drifts that go beyond the main storyline. Also, the many characters that are described all have their own ups and downs (well, mainly downs), their own stories and – to a certain degree – tragic lifes.
The main character is Oscar although more than half the book covers the stories of his mother, sister and other people around him. Oscar is a typical loser – fat, nerdy, glasses, can’t communicate normally, never had sex. You instantly feel sorry for him and take his side. I wonder if in real life we would have the guts to really help out such a guy. He also doesn’t want to be helped because he thinks he’s so far beyond any help that he retreats into his own world quite often. His own world being Dungeons & Dragons games, Anime movies, Fantasy Books and any other kind of media that a “normal” person would associate with “nerdiness”. Oscar strives to be the new Tolkien and to get laid. Two goals that couldn’t contradict each other more, I would say.
Other characters of the book are Oscar’s sister and his mother as well as a various people that cross and influence their lives. In the end their stories and lives somehow merge into one (rather sad) fate. What makes you feel for them is not the tragedy or challenges that seem to follow them on every step they take but the fact that the author, Junot Diaz, is able to make it sound real. A Puerto Rican family migrating to the US and the younger generations facing the cultural and demographic challenges – in theory a perfect place for lots of cliches and fuzzy, feel good happy endings. Not so with Junot Diaz. No artificial language, just extremely well paced storytelling. The lengthy footnotes can be a bit distracting and hard to understand sometimes (I am not an expert on Puerto Rican history… and I assume I am not the only one) but they add a lot to the atmosphere once you get used to that particular way of writing. Also, moving back and forth in time, telling stories from various points of view and really not knowing how it will all end can be very difficult in times but also makes the greatness of this book.
There are few books that hold my attention for a long time after I have finished reading them. To me that’s the best indicator of whether it has been good (excellent in this case) and giving me more than just a good time while reading it. It’s definitely not easy to read (not at all) but the effort is worth it and I would be surprised if there’s anyone who has read it and doesn’t like it. (Guest Review written by Ole Brandenburg).