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On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos


Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos


When I was in year eight I had an English teacher who would have us write essays in class, and would then commend students who could hand in a piece of work free of spelling mistakes. I will never forget the time he held up an error-free essay, then looked the student in the eye and said, but its not as though you took any risks, is it?

Our teacher would have preferred our work to be peppered with mistakes so long as it meant that we were striving to use new and unfamiliar words, or to challenge ourselves stylistically.

As a reader I have a special place in my heart for ambitious books, books that try to do something a little different, even if that something different isnt pulled off with quite the flair it might be.'Because I would much, much rather find myself journeying with a book that is striving to grasp at something but doesnt quite make it than a book that is generally solid but that has little other to commend it than its very plodding solidity.

And in what is becoming an endless march of indistinguishable YA, it is so wonderful to be able to pick up something like'Dark Dude. Its not a perfect book by any means, but its a passionate book, and an honest book, and a'risky book. Its a book that attempts to take you to places, to make you consider your own place, and to give you a fleeting moment or two of sheer beauty.

Comparisons with Jonathan Lethems'The Fortress of Solitude are in my mind inevitable, so Ill get that out of the way: yes, this is definitely redolent of the Lethem. In fact, its so much so that its almost a response in novel form. Like'The Fortress of Solitude,'Dark Dude gives us a protagonist who straddles cultures, living as an outsider in a world he will never quite be able to make his own; similarly both books use art as a lens through which race and culture can be examined.

But where Lethem takes us deep into the grim depths of New York, lifting us out only with a hint or two of magic, Hijuelos takes protagonist Rico Fuentes out of New York entirely, setting him down in amongst the bucolic fantasy of rural Wisconsin. Though it sounds like a cheap tree-change ploy, its a surprisingly effective plot choice, allowing Hijuelos to explore the same issues of identity against a setting that is effectively the reverse of the books gritty 60s Harlem setting.

A pale-skinned Cuban American whose Spanish is functional at best, Rico has always been insecure in his identity, and he is further distanced from his Harlem peers by his bookish interestssomething that is perceived as a marker of white cultural identity. And yet within the insulated, isolated context of Wisconsin, where he should in theory be freed from the cultural expectations that he has struggled with his whole life in New York, he finds himself wrestling with similar questions. Though able to pass as white, Rico is still in many ways on the cultural borderline: his speech patterns and manner immediately give him away when dealing with the locals, and he finds himself applying the same coping mechanisms and cross-cultural balms in doing so.

Though theres a heavy-handedness at times to the way that Hijuelos draws parallels between Ricos lived experiences in and expectations of New York and Wisconsin, Ricos fumbling sense of wonder and search for understanding and growth mitigates this somewhat: while he may not be an analytical character, theres a quietness in the way that he navigates the social challenges thrown at him that offers a space for the reader to reflect on the universality of prejudice and the often unfathomably cruel, animal ways in which people can act. By stripping away the tough context of New York and transposing these incidents into sweet, all-American setting, Hijuelos shows us just how much our expectations of people, and in particular certain marginalised groups, are mediated by context.

The novel works even where it shouldnt largely because of Ricos voice: and this is one of the few YA books Ive read recently where the voice element extends beyond a colloquial middle class snideness, where the narrative voice is actually wielded by a character who is'worthy of telling a story, who actually has some capability of seeing the world with something other than skin-deep diarising cynism. I cant tell you how frustrated I am by the way that the definition of a successful narrative voice in YA appears to be anything that ticks all the boxes of endlessly casual, stylistically devoid, snark-riddled reportage. Trust me: readers can tell when voice is being used as a short-cut for characterisation, and where its being used to deflect readers away from the fact that a book has nothing at all to say.

For a first person book to work, our narrator not only has to have something to say, but to have the ability to'express it. And Hijuelos does this admirably. Rico is a lower-class, racially ambiguous, embattled kid, and lets face it, hes hardly going to spout Shakespeare at you. But what he'does do is see moments of such beauty in our world, and see these with such surprise and wonder, that you cant help but smile.

Dark Dude isnt a perfect book, and to be honest, Im almost glad that it isnt, because Id hate this to be the novel equivalent of the error-free essay my teacher held up in my class all those years ago. Its flawed, yes, but it reaches for those heights, and even when it doesnt hit them, youre overjoyed that its at least'tried to.

Rating: star On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelosstar On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelosstar On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar Hijueloshalfstar On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelosblankstar On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos (very good)'

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Other books by Oscar Hijuelos:

Beautiful Maria of My Soul by Oscar Hijuelos On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar HijuelosThe Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar HijuelosA Simple Habana Melody by Oscar Hijuelos On narrative voice in YA and Dark Dude by Oscar Hijuelos

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