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"The writing in The Names of Things is beautiful, hypnotic, and exacting…"
"With vivid detail and thoughtful prose, Wood delivers a unique and heartbreaking story of love, loss, and the universal human experience of seeking acceptance."
The anthropologist’s wife, an artist, didn’t want to follow her husband to the remote desert of northeast Africa to live with camel-herding nomads. But wanting to be with him, she endured the trip, only to fall desperately ill years later with a disease that leaves her husband with more questions than answers.
When the anthropologist discovers a deception that shatters his grief and guilt, he begins to reevaluate his love for his wife as well as his friendship with one of the nomads he studied. He returns to Africa to make sense of what happened, traveling into the far reaches of the Chalbi Desert, where he must sift through the layers of his memories and reconcile them with what he now knows.
Set in a windswept wilderness menaced by hyenas and lions, The Names of Things weaves together the stories of an anthropologist’s journey into the desert, his firsthand accounts of the nomads' death rituals, and his struggle to find the names of things for which no words exist.
Anthropologist John Colman Wood’s debut novel is an exquisite, haunting exploration of the meaning of love and the rituals of grief.
"John Colman Wood’s The Names of Things is a thoughtful, patient, and ultimately rewarding book. It’s about, among many other things, the connections human beings make, that in spite of everything, we will always make. To quote from the book, 'What he saw in the people was what the old anthropologists called communitas. It wasn’t that the people sang and moved. It was their singing and moving together…' Singing and moving together, Wood has found a way to express this profound and beautiful idea through fiction."
"The Names of Things beautifully renders one man’s struggle to balance his life’s work with the love of his life. As much spiritual journey as it is physical adventure, this gripping novel is about an anthropologist who sheds his self-conscious role as a studier of man and becomes, almost in spite of himself, a man himself. It is a dramatic portrait of the fine line between selflessness and selfishness. But above all it is a profound and moving story, and John Colman Wood is an anthropologist of the human heart."
"In this gripping novel, John Wood dwells deeply in an exotic African culture, evokes its humanity along with its customs and rituals, and weaves a tale of adventure that uses the fine texture of his prose to envelop us and make us feel we are there. Rarely if ever has the experience of fieldwork been transmuted into such a good story."
"At once a love story, an ethnography, an adventure novel, and a meditation on grief, The Names of Things explores the inward and outward journeys that mark us, and the stories we tell ourselves in order to make sense of them. Reminiscent of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, Wood’s novel has a compelling, cumulative power that comes by way of language as clear and fresh as water, and a profound, keenly humane watchfulness that well serves both the book’s nameless anthropologist and Wood, its author."
"The Names of Things explores fieldwork in the deepest sense of the word, the transformative effect of moving our lives to another place, often a strange place, for months or years at a time...The novel is also the story of a journey, a seeking of truth or at least revelation, and the inevitable gaps and betrayals and transcendence such journeys can bring."
"The writing in The Names of Things is beautiful, hypnotic, and exacting; this is a book to be read slowly, to be savored and absorbed as each piece of the story falls into place. The man's evolution, from observing to living to accepting death, takes place in chapters interspersed with brief explanations of the burial rituals of the Gabra nomads of northeast Africa. The links between the age-old rituals and the man's journey are subtle and powerful, and in the end, profoundly moving."
"Wood weaves a wonderful tale here. Though the narrator’s travels in Africa are depicted marvelously, the narrator’s journey is more inside than external…In the end, satisfactorily Wood presents more questions than answers. He presents more in the journey, as only this particular narrator can perform it, than in any particular factual accuracy or resolution. The result is beautiful and haunting. I highly recommend reading this book."
"The Names of Things is a beautifully written book permeated with a sense of sadness and regret, set against the backdrop of the desolate Kenyan landscape … the story feels intensely real and personal."
"John Colman Wood’s chilling and gorgeous first novel, The Names of Things, follows a nameless anthropologist and his reluctant wife, an artist, through field research with the Dasse people of Kenya. Through marital tension, through long periods apart, through an illness that reveals long-buried secrets, the story unfolds around them as they attempt to work through emotional and physical distance in very unexpected ways … With vivid detail and thoughtful prose, Wood delivers a unique and heartbreaking story of love, loss, and the universal human experience of seeking acceptance."
"John Colman Wood’s novel, The Names of Things, a quiet story with a philosophical center, is [an] example of how a well-traveled theme becomes relevant and remarkable in its retelling. This isn’t just the transposition of a familiar story into an updated timeline; this is a story that takes all of its intensity from its contemporary context…In short, what could be just another grief story becomes absolutely unique, even exotic."
"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…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."
"You like exquisite and sad love stories? Read this. You like books with a bit of mystery to them? You’re fascinated with burial/marriage/birthing practices of other cultures? You want fiction? Nonfiction? Ethnography? Read this. This novel gives everything you would want and more. Wood gives us a peek of Dasse life with the detail-oriented mind and cultural sensitivity of an anthropologist. He gives us the love, sadness and riveting plot of a gifted writer. I had been looking for a book I couldn’t put down, and in The Names of Things I found one."
"Alternating episodes from the lives of the anthropologist and his wife with descriptions of the rituals of the Dasse people, John Colman Wood has constructed an exquisite and memorable tale of humans’ social needs layered on top of our inescapable inner solitude."
"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…This is an exciting debut, an author with a distinctive experience and a lovely and powerful voice."
"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."