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Having recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz is hot property in the literary world these days. Having started his writing career with short stories published in The New Yorker, Diaz is best known for his novel 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' (for which he won the Pulitzer), and this series of short stories, entitled Drown.
Comprised of 10 pieces of short fiction spread across 208 pages, Drown is unified by a theme which runs through all the stories and their various characters; the experience of immigrants to America, the memories of the homeland, the hope and fear of moving to the land of such promise, the disappointment when all is not perfect in the new land, and the complexities of immigrant sub-culture in an urban American setting.
Each story is distinct and unique, with a varying cast in a range of different situations and their own back stories. Diaz does an amazing job of fleshing out the characters within the space of a very few pages for each story, incidentally. However, even through these changing characters, there is almost a sense that the narratorial voice is that of the same person, or a similar person. Perhaps this is because Diaz draws heavily on his own experiences and memories and therefore incorporates (either knowingly or subconsciously) autobiographical elements from his life as he matured and acclimitised to his new home. Or perhaps it is a device used intentionally to indicate the extent to which the problems facing these particular characters - their fears, concerns, and battles - are pervasive within the whole, largely faceless, immigrant community.
Diaz's language is sparse and hard, cutting to the heart of the matter, and expressing the essence of most situations in relatively few words. This, of course, will not be to everyone's taste, as the language can be quite direct (with regard to some violence and some sexual content for instance), but it is certainly not, in my opinion, crude or gratuitous. Also, the economy of the prose lends itself especially well to short fiction, and gives the reader the feeling that they are getting, for lack of a better term, a lot of 'bang for their buck' from these 200 odd pages.
The collection of stories is well structured, so that they almost lead into one another, not quite in the way that chapters in a novel blend into each other, but more perhaps as though a group of people are sitting around together telling related stories. Indeed, if that were true, the story-tellers would be an eclectic bunch, ranging from young boys still living in the Dominican Republic, but with their imaginations fully taking flight in the dream of America, teenagers exploring the complexities and heirarchies of immigrant populations within American cities, workers and families, couples split between the two countries, and people who've experienced varying levels of success and happiness in their new home. However, these different voices, do sit together very well and there is a lot of information and feeling that is shared, as the characters share their broadly common background, meaning that with each story, rather than starting over with a new cast, the reader feels like they're building up an understanding of a whole sub-culture.
Of course, this could also be said to be one of the problems with the book - in some ways it may purport to represent a whole sub-population, but obviously the collection of characters represented here can never hope to accurately reflect the complexities and unique differences of all the individuals within that sector of society. Diaz himself, for instance, may have come from a similarly poor and relatively fraught background as his characters, but he has since become a successful writer, in a sense has made a career out of this (some would say) unfortunate beginning, and has gone on to win acclaim and take on a prestigious professorship at MIT. This is but one element of the sub-culture that clearly exists, but which Diaz does not address. However, I don't consider this to be a major drawback, after all the collection of stories is focused in its desire to explore a particular aspect of the human condition and is not obligated to go outside those defined limits. No writer can hope to cover it all in one book!
While perhaps of more particular interest to American readers, Drown is an interesting glimpse into another world, and, possibly more importantly, contains some simply excellent story-telling. Moreover, Diaz displays a mastery over language that allows his stories to be poetic and subtle, while using essentially rather pedestrian, believable, and authentic language for the characters he is representing. Don't be put off if you're not typically a fan of short story collections, this book reads really rather similarly to a novel and is from page one very engaging.
A quick and accessible read, that nevertheless has some deeper elements and will leave you with a pleasantly bittersweet aftertaste. Recommended.