Ixachel's Reviews > The Names of Things

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood
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Apr 21, 2012

bookshelves: l-t, wishlist, giveaway-wins, ebooks-i-own, read-in-2012, reviewed, to-read
Read in June, 2012

The Names of Things, by John Colman Wood, tells the story of an unnamed anthropologist studying the nomadic Dasse people of the Chalbi Desert. In his field work, he observes the customs and rituals, as well as the normal day-to-day interactions, of the camel-herding Dasse. He is entranced by them, falling easily into their life. He builds a friendship with one of the nomadic men.

“You seized a bit of life, and life damaged you.”

The anthropologist’s wife, an artist, goes with him. She does not adjust, merely endures. She complains to him, but these go unheeded. He thinks that she can paint anywhere and shouldn't really mind the upheaval of her life. As he becomes more involved in his work, his wife slips further away from him. Eventually, she is lost entirely. The anthropologist must then sift through his grief and the deceptive past to find answers. He returns to the desert, the scene of the crime, to make sense of things.

“Death is a strange betrayal. The dead leave the living more certainly than if they’d run off with a lover.”

Told in alternating first-person and third-persons narration, the reader gets a multifaceted look into the anthropologist’s life. The third-persons drives home the notion that this man is an observer, even of his own life. He is an anthropologist through and through. Still, the overall tone is intimate and personal. We feel very close to this man. The anthropologists’ sorrows and desires become our own.
The desert wilderness comes to life as well. The people, animals, and scenery are wonderfully described. Dasse burial rituals are very detailed. The reader is fully drawn into this world.

“All I wanted was to sing and dance and share the delight and seriousness of that night, and my desire to do so, a desire which arose from the differences between us, my incapacity, my lack of understanding, was the very thing that held me back.”

This book is not a thrill ride, not an adventure. It is quiet and contemplative, lyrical and flowing. The story is deceptively simple: what seems like a meandering tale turns into a poignant and evocative look at love, loss, and grief.

[Also posted on Futuresfading. | Full disclosure: I won a copy of this book from Librarything Early Reviewers.]
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