John Coleman Wood
Another e-book read for Early Reviewers. I had a small gap in the reading of this and, unusually, found that what i had read had not remained with me sufficiently for me to pick up the book and continue; i had to go back to the beginning and start again. I only mention this because it is relevant to my review in that i, normally an involved reader, am able to follow several books at once (recently it was a dozen i had going), without confusing them, but this time i was not able to. I am not sure i can put my finger on the reason that i was confused, though a couple of ideas to come to mind, intimately linked with the book and my review.
First of all, the plot is not told in chronological order but jumps back and forth through time from the present, the book's opening, to several different points in the past. Also, intermixed in the plot are snippets from an anthropologist's notes or writings; the implication is that they are those of the main character, a never named American studying in East Africa, though i think they could well be actual notes made by Wood in the course of his studies.
Another reason for my confusion, and this lasted far longer than my original start and restart, indeed, even after having finished the thing i still have less than complete clarity, is the names and personalities, such as they are, of the African characters. Wood's protagonist (awkward to refer to him this way, but he is nameless throughout) seems less interested in them as people than as objects of study and, as he is our reference point, our point of view, we are given almost nothing to distinguish them one from another. In fact, the anthropologist’s wife (also nameless, “she” and “her”) is also less a real character than a memory or image of one ~ perhaps this is intentional as, in the present she is dead. Ultimately, this particular issue for me revolves around a lack of distinctive character in the novel and, as i tend to prefer character-driven writing, that is something of a weakness.
Usually if a particular book ~ or sometimes it's all of an author's works ~ is less character-driven it will be more plot-oriented; in this case, however, i don't find that compensation. The plot in The Names of Things is thin, almost as though nothing happens, just the recording of a journey walked through some of the land of the tribe studied, along with the memories inherent. I don't really understand Wood's meaning or purpose behind the book; since there really is not much of a plot, as i mentioned, nor do the characters present anything new or compelling to me, certainly not the two North Americans, while the Africans are hard to distinguish though as a group perhaps new, why was the book written?
In a sense, it seems as though the sole purpose to the novel is to present what the life of an anthropologist is like; this would make it more autobiographical than anything else, which may i suppose explain the namelessness of the North Americans. At any rate, despite the several negative points i have made, i did not not enjoy the book so much as find it necessary to reclassify it in my mind. It clearly does not fit into my categorisation as “Novel, good”, yet it is not clearly a book to throw away; i am not sure exactly how to categorise it. Nor am i sure whether it is a success by my criterion; all i can say it that another book by John Coleman Wood would be much more likely to be picked up and read by me if it is non-fiction rather than fiction. That makes this an awkward review, i'm afraid, of what is, in a number of ways, an awkward book.