Summary and book reviews of The Names of Things by John Colman Wood

The Names of Things

By John Colman Wood

The Names of Things
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  • Paperback: Apr 2012,
    276 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs

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Book Summary

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.

I
The present

He and the boy had been walking, save a couple of hours in the hottest part of afternoon, since the quarter moon rose at two o’clock that morning. From the settlement of Maikona on the edge of the Chalbi Desert, they skirted the Dida Galgalo plains, where you could look in every direction and not see one tree or even a bush, only lava rubble the color of rotted apples and grass between rocks, yellow as packing straw. The emptiness comforted him. The flat horizon, swept daily by unceasing wind, calmed his mind. He missed the place. He missed the people. But he also wanted the desiccation, the osmotic suck, to wipe his memories clean and blow them away.

They’d left at two o’clock in the morning because the trip at a camel’s pace would take them eighteen hours, and they wanted to arrive when the camp was still awake. Two o’clock was also when the moon came up, slim as it was, and they needed its light to load the camels with jerry ...

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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. There are two main reasons why I find myself recommending this novel. First, the author's ability to vividly describe a setting is among the finest I've encountered. Second, while Wood maintains in his afterword that The Names of Things is fictional, the story feels intensely real and personal.   (Reviewed by Kim Kovacs).

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The Huffington Post

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.

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The Gabra People

The Names of Things is set in the Chalbi, a desert in northern Kenya near the border with Ethiopia (marked "A" on the map below).

mapThe Chalbi, which means "bare and salty" in the local language, was once part of Lake Turkana, the largest permanent desert lake in the world. It is an immense flat expanse of clay and white salt stretching approximately 62,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers), surrounded by volcanoes and ancient lava flows.

Kenya's only true desert, the Chalbi is one of the hottest and most arid regions in the world. The area receives less than five inches of rain in a standard year, but even that is sporadic; some years only a trace of rainfall reaches the desert floor. Whatever little rain falls arrives during ...

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