Katelyn Leboff reviews THE NAMES OF THINGS by John Colman Wood

July 2, 2015 0 Comments Book Review 2894 Views
Cover photo.

Cover photo from publisher’s website.

Buy directly from the publisher and get a discount:http://www.ashlandcreekpress.com/books/namesofthings.html

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood. Ashland Creek Press. 2012. pp. 270. Paperback: $17.50. ISBN: 978-1-61822-005-9.

Review by Katelyn Leboff

Map photo.

Courtesy of http://savingstripes.wildlifedirect.org/

In his debut novel, The Names of Things, John Colman Wood uses nonfictional elements of ethnography and research to weave a fictional tale of exoticism and escapism. Wood draws from his own anthropological background to give credibility to this wonderfully imagined story and its characters that feel so familiar and tangible.

“Fiction. But fictions are interpretations of sorts: They are not random; they are motivated by an interest, a matter of heart” (pg. 174).

The Names of Things is a story for anyone interested in humanity – of life, death and grieving rituals and habits among peoples, so similar and strange from ourselves – and of a heartbreaking, yet beautiful love story that is extreme as night and day in the Chalbi desert itself. Our protagonist is an anthropologist, the ferenji (“foreigner”), who journeys to a remote desert, the Chalbi, of northeast Africa to study a nomadic tribe of camel herders called theDasse. His wife, an artist devoted to her work, desires to be close to him and feels compelled to tag along. In the end, however, the couple grows even further apart.  What once made this couple fall in love – their differences – becomes a barrier even harder to overcome than that of understanding an entire foreign people.

At its surface, The Names of Things is about one man’s venture to connect with a culture and people, thousands of miles apart from his own, in a quest to better understand humanity as a collective. The anthropologist strives to adopt the habits and learn the tongue – the names of things – of the Dasse people, but ultimately, he realizes how much there is to explore and understand closer to home, and almost how much harder that can be.

The novel’s title speaks to an inherent theme of the novel in describing the anthropologist’s goal to learn from those he studies, learn their language – the names of things. But in a more subtle way The Names of Things resonates the harsh, often agonizing, truth that some things, some feelings, cannot be described by words, in any language.

“The old man asked where he was going and what he was looking for…. Imbeku, he [the anthropologist] said. I don’t know… I had no language to tell them why I wanted to be alone, and they had no cultural understanding to make sense of this.” (pg. 239, 241).

The Names of Things is rampant with vivid description and imagery that so clearly paints a picture for the reader. Wood lets his readers see the “cyclone, the tight curl of a woman’s long lock of hair” (pg. 39) and hear the donkey’s hooves and its “staccato steps” making “the water sound like a bartender shaking a drink” (pg. 219).  Wood accomplishes more than masterful storytelling in that the language and writing of this novel include moments of striking yet appropriate poetry, strong verbs, and enough uniqueness to avoid clichés yet not alienate his readers.

A great piece of literature evokes a multitude of deep emotions and pushes its readers to strive beyond their preconceived notions and perspectives. Truly effective writing, through its subject matter and story, should motivate readers to hurdle or, if necessary, crash through their intellectual barriers. The Names of Things, written in the eloquent and strong voice of Wood, does not fail to deliver.   

About the Author

Author photo.

Author photo and bio from publisher’s website

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, once for a story extracted from The Names of Things, which was a finalist for the 2013 Chautauqua Prize.

He is the author of When Men Are Women: Manhood among Gabra Nomads of East Africa (University of Wisconsin Press, 1999). Before becoming an anthropologist, Wood was a journalist.

Recent publications:

 “Life damages you” (fiction), Journal of Anthropology and Humanism, 2011, 36 (2). Winner of the 2010 Ethnographic Fiction Prize, Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

“Field relations, field betrayals,” in Being There: Learning to Live Cross-Culturally, Melvin Konner and Sarah Davis, eds., 2011. Cambridge: Harvard University Press

“Cold Patience” (fiction), Journal of Anthropology and Humanism, 2010, 35 (1). Winner of the 2009 Ethnographic Fiction Prize, Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

“Roads to nowhere: nomadic understandings of place, space, and ethnicity,” in Changing Identifications and Alliances in Northeast Africa, Gunther Schlee and Elizabeth Watson, eds., 2009. London: Berghahn Press

Notable Links

Blog: http://implaced.blogspot.com/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/colmanwood

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/johncolmanwood


About the Reviewer

Katelyn Leboff is a reader for Kudzu House Quarterly. She works as a Marketing Coordinator full time in Knoxville while also continuing her education in an online Masters of Publishing program at The George Washington University in Alexandria, VA.  Her creative work has appeared in Aubade, Silver Birch Press, and Spurt Literary Journal as well as many other online and print publications. Katelyn holds an English (Creative Writing) degree from the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. She is also pursuing a Photography Certificate from the University of Tennessee and spends her free time honing her design and development skills on her beloved Adobe Creative Suite. When she needs to relax, you can find Katelyn shooting pool, watching football, playing video games, or reading and writing in a local café (but only drinking tea, of course, as coffee is repulsive.)

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