by Michelle Donahue
An anthropologist travels to the Chalbi desert in Kenya to study the nomadic, Dasse people. While there, Abudo befriends the anthropologist and teaches him the names of things. He points outs objects, one at a time, and says their names, teaching the anthropologist the language, the way of thinking of the Dasse. Abudo teaches the anthropologist just as John Colman Wood teaches the reader in his first novel, The Names of Things. Wood teaches us about the Dasse, about their daily life and their burial practices and about the anthropologist who begins to question everything after his wife falls ill. Wood teaches us one word at a time, in short, poignant scenes, until slowly we begin to learn.
The work opens with the anthropologist observing his wife, an artist, in her studio. She invites him because she liked having a witness. But he tells us this is his interpretation only, immediately keying the reader into the problems of being an observer. Our journey starts with his wife’s artwork, a piece of moving light mixed with incredible dark. From here, Wood takes us on a journey through space and time.
There is the present, when the anthropologist has returned to the desert, years after his initial stay. He returns with no real reason except to try to find answers, to try to feel home again among the Dasse. There is the past, when he first came to know the Dasse and became friends with Abudo. He learns their language, speaks in strange phrases like “Do the children smell good?”. As he learns the sayings and mannerism of the Dasse so do we. His wife doesn’t like life in the desert and moves to Maikona, the closest city.
Then there is the time before and after his first trip. Before: a time of love and newness with his wife. With deft and surprising prose, Wood begins their relationship. Then there is after: a time when his wife falls ill, a strange illness that makes her weaker and weaker. And throughout all this, Wood provides sections that read like excerpts from ethnographies that describe the ceremonies the Dasse perform.
Through these pieces, Wood reveals not only a compelling story, but explores the meaning of truth, commitment and love. The anthropologist questions his identity and wonders if the true problem with anthropology is not that the observer has an effect on the observed, but that the observer cannot let go of him or herself. When the anthropologist unearths a possible lie from his wife and has no way to deny or confirm it, he seeks to find a way to let go of himself.
I keep running into people and feeling that I must recommend The Names of Things to them. You like exquisite and sad love stories? Read this. You like books with a bit of mystery to them? You’re fascinated with burial/marriage/birthing practices of other cultures? You want fiction? Nonfiction? Ethnography? Read this. This novel gives everything you would want and more. Wood gives us a peak of Dasse life with the detail oriented mind and cultural sensitivity of an anthropologist. He gives us the love, sadness and riveting plot of a gifted writer. I had been looking for a book I couldn’t put down and in The Names of Things I found one.
Michelle Donahue is a candidate for creative writing and the environment at Iowa State University and a member of the Flyway staff.