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The Names of Things by John Colman Wood

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood is the journey of an anthropologist through the grieving processes he documented among the Northeast African Dasse nomadic camps following the passing of his wife sometime later.  Beautifully written in alternating time frames from the anthropologist’s past field work that helped him create two books on the nomadic lives of these people and their grieving rituals and the present when he returns to the African Chalbi Desert to cope with his wife’s passing.  Wood also includes excerpts on the tribe’s grieving rituals throughout the book, which help to anchor the story in Africa, and help the reader learn how the tribe has named the unnameable — a task the anthropologist must learn.

The prose of this novel is hypnotic and carries the reader into the desert with these people as the anthropologist gains their favor and begins to feel at one with the community.  Wood not only raises questions of an academic nature about the role of an anthropologist, but also whether his presence has polluted the natural dynamic of the community by introducing foreign ideas and culture into their community.  But the presence of the anthropologist among this community also raises questions of how well he can integrate into the community and understand their rituals, feelings, and perspectives, especially since he always remains mostly an outsider to their customs and their grief.

In many ways, the protagonist observes and hangs on the outside not only of the lives of the African tribe, but also of his own life.  His artist wife, who accompanies him to the desert, is left to her own devices as he gallivants through the desert with the tribe and conducts his research.  While she paints and sketches and carves out a routine for herself in which she sits with the sick in the city hospital and does menial tasks, her husband is not with her and he seems to not even think of her much until he returns to her side.  What’s even more curious about these characters is that they seem well paired in that they both need to be alone to complete their work, though their philosophies about the privacy of notes/sketches are very different.

“What I think is interesting, she went on, is that for the list to be interesting you have to bring something else to it.  You have to want what’s on it, and that isn’t a matter of accuracy.  It’s not about the place but about you.”  (page 221-2)

John Colman Wood knows the best way to write about the research anthropologists conduct, while at the same time maintaining the reader’s engagement in the story of his protagonist and his wife.  Even though the research separates them, and the anthropologist seems indifferent to his wife’s suffering, it is clear that he understands her artistic nature and her need to be alone to observe.  However, these characters (who do remain nameless throughout the book) are separate but together on their journeys of observation, with only one of them truly connecting with something outside themselves.  Although The Names of Things is about how to define and deal with the grief that inevitably comes when we love, belong, and need one another, it also is about how we interact with those around us and how much a part of the community we become or not.  A well-written and paced debut novel that will surprise readers with its journey into the customs that bind us together and how they are shaped by the people that create them.

About the Author (Photo credit: Carol Young Wood):

John Colman Wood teaches at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His field research with Gabra nomads of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His fiction has appeared in Anthropology and Humanism, and he has twice won the Ethnographic Fiction Prize of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

This is my 67th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.