David Bernardy Reviews The Names of Things by John Colman Wood
Set against the backdrop of a nomadic tribal community in eastern Africa, John Colman Wood’s quietly affecting debut novel, The Names of Things, explores the intricacies between love and grief and the intersections of nature and culture.
Wood’s unnamed protagonist is, like the author, an anthropologist, and the novel opens with a lovely scene of trained observation. The protagonist watches his wife, an artist, as she begins a new painting in her studio. As she stands before the canvas, he notes the dance of her body, the mysterious and uncanny process that accompanies creation. His senses are attuned; this too, he knows, is a kind of ritual. “The room smelled of oil and thinner and soap . . . A brush makes a different sound than a pencil,” he tells us, “The pencil sounds like a fingernail drawn across the surface of a wall. The brush is like the wind.” Yet for all his attention, there remains the mystery of the moment, the limits of his ability to truly know his wife’s mind, or anyone’s. “She’d invited me to the studio,” he says, “She liked having a witness. Of course, that’s me, supplying an explanation.”
This tension, between the scientist’s desire to explain and the lover’s need to understand, motivates the moves the novel takes as Wood’s anthropologist travels back to be among the pastoral community of east African nomads. It was here that his wife contracted the disease that killed her, the disease that goes unnamed but from all signs may well have been HIV. Was it, as they assumed, a result of her work in the hospital here, her accidental contact with blood in the heat of the moment? Or did she, in fact, have an illicit affair with one of her husband’s African contacts, as the nude drawings in her sketchbook would seem to indicate? More than that, though, he goes back to understand himself, his grief, and to try to learn a way of coping with the emptiness he feels. “The old social thinkers called what he suffered anomie” he muses, “which, if you broke it down, meant without order or perhaps without name . . . What he wanted remained unnamed, unsaid, because he didn’t know what to say, and even if he did, he wouldn’t know how.”
It is once the story moves to Africa that Wood’s true talents rise to the surface. I am reminded here of Michael Ondaatje’s novels, in part for the exotic setting, but also for the way Wood juggles multiple narratives and time signatures, and his lush attention to the physical world. Wood’s Africa seems to be a well-known place, alive in the grand vistas one might expect from a nature show, but also in the dusty hovels full of rumbling trucks, brown bottles, taxis which carry him past “hunched marabou storks, blank-eyed as undertakers.” He measures the landscape with restrained poetry. A cyclone becomes “the tight curl of woman’s long lock of hair, rose a thousand feet and whipped the horizon, throwing dry brush and pebbles in its wake. He watched it disappear into a sky the color of a naked lightbulb.”
Another pleasure of The Names of Things is the way in which it teaches you about this land and its people. From the scraps of the protagonists’ notes that punctuate the chapters, we’re told of the Dasse people’s rituals for burial and mourning. We learn of the female hyena, whose “masculinized genitalia” are a result of the high levels of testosterone found in their blood. We see the sand grouse, who seem to nurse their young, as mammals do: “As they got to the [water’s] edge, each lifted her breast feathers, like a woman lifting the front of her dress to sit down, and pressed them into the shallow water. Water runs from a duck, but it collects in a grouse’s down, beading up in the soft spongy fibers. Then with a boom of collective wings, the front row lifted off to dash back and suckle their young with water from their bosoms.”
For all these small wonders, there remains a kind of coolness to Wood’s book. This, I think, may well be the danger of writing about a character locked in grief. The narrative begins to take on the same emotional frigidity as the protagonist. With the exceptions of the beautiful moments of caring for his fading wife, the scenes that focus on the protagonist’s relationships with other people feel, at times, distant and starved. This same sensibility predicates the moves towards the novel’s end, that in some ways, seems too insistent on avoiding emotional closure.
The beauties of this book, however, outweigh the flaws. This is an exciting debut, an author with a distinctive experience and a lovely and powerful voice. I’m eager to see his next efforts as lessons of The Names of Things linger long in my mind.