The Names of Things by John Colman Wood is not a book I would usually pick up. I do tend to be very eclectic about the genres I read, but I am not sure that I would have picked this one up in a bookstore if I had read the back. I received this book from the early reviewers program from Librarything.com. Something about the write up for the book on librarything resulted in me to requesting the free copy. Perhaps it was that the novel is about desert nomads, and I am mildly interested in reading about that part of the world. However it was that I got the book, I am glad I did. It is very different from what I usually read but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a very thoughtfully written book that points out to us no matter what your culture is; we all go through the same emotions. We just have different ways of handling them. I will warn you that there are spots in the book (especially it seems in the beginning) where the novel is very frank in ways some might consider vulgar. I believe it is used to point out that the nomad culture is very different from ours but it could shock and offend some readers.
Plot: An anthropologist is married to an artist. He wants to go to the inhospitable Chalbi desert in Africa to study and live with the Dasse, who are a population of desert nomads. His wife doesn’t want to live in the desert, it is a very harsh environment and she is an observer and felt too observed in the camps of the desert tribe. They make a compromise. He lives out in the desert and she lives in a larger community near the desert. He visits her ever so often and this seems to save their marriage. She finds herself volunteering at a hospital and continuing with her art. But on one fateful afternoon, an accident begins a cascade of events that will lead to the death of the Artist. The Anthropologist doesn’t know how to deal with the loss of his wife and his loss is compounded by the death of a tribesman who was his friend out in the desert. The Anthropologist makes another journey to the desert. He hasn’t been back to visit the nomads since he left after his original grant ran out. His is a spiritual journey as well as a physical one. He is looking for answers to questions about his relationship with his wife, his relationships with the nomads and his relationship with himself. This is an internal struggle therefore the plot moves slowly and there is very little in the way of action. However, the journey is worth it.
There are several things I liked about this book. First of all John Colman is an anthropologist so he is in an unique position to postulate what effect an anthropologist has on the people they study and what effect the people being studied have on the anthropologist. This is one of themes throughout the book. I also liked the fact that as we see the main character of the book go through his grieving process, the chapters are interspersed with excerpts of a book the main character supposedly has written about the tribe and how they deal with death. I also thought the main character had a great voice and developed quite a bit throughout the novel. The main character is human, believable, and we identify with him and what he is going through. I also liked the theme of the book which is we all go through events in our lives and emotions because we are all human. The only difference culture makes is how we deal with those moments.
There are a couple things I did not like about the book. While it is very well written, it is slow. I had to set it down and come back to it a couple of times. However, it was well worth working through those slower moments. Secondly, I wasn’t fond of the ending, I guess I just wanted to know more but maybe that is the point. Maybe we never really know the meaning of a story.
Overall, this was a well-written book containing interesting themes to think about. I enjoyed reading it and highly recommended it. If you like a well-written story that will leave you thinking or you are interested in desert cultures then you should enjoy this book. I read an electronic version of the book but it is available to purchase as a paperback.