This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Díaz, Faber, RRP£12.99/Riverhead Books, RRP$26.95, 224 pages
Junot Díaz created an indelible title character in his Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007), but what lingered in the mind was the voice of its largely unseen narrator, Yunior. Erudite and street-smart, lyrical and profane, he told a story that straddled two worlds, setting a Dominican-American coming of age against the 20th-century horrors of the Trujillo dictatorship with vigour, exuberance and a penchant for wisecracking, footnoted asides.
In Oscar Wao Yunior’s attention was directed outwards. His own biography – which mirrors, though not exactly, that of his creator – was already familiar to readers of Díaz’s first collection of interlinked short stories, Drown (1996). Dominican-born, brought to New Jersey as a child, educated at Rutgers, a bodybuilder and a sci-fi enthusiast, Yunior is hard to pin down. This is of course the point, and the vivid ease with which his Spanish-studded English slides between the elevated and the demotic is both a celebration and a reproach.
Díaz’s impressive new collection, This is How You Lose Her, fills some of the gaps in Yunior’s life-story – episodes elided in Drown, such as the last months of his brother’s struggle with leukaemia – but above all this is a book about love, or rather, its aftermath. It captures the dream-like state of splitting-up, the odd details that stick in the mind (“She threw Cassandra’s letter at me – it missed and landed under a Volvo”). Towards the end of the opening story, “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars”, Yunior recalls his initial impressions of girlfriend Magda and is hit by a realisation: “that’s when I know it’s over. As soon as you start thinking about the beginning, it’s the end.” The line echoes throughout the collection,and as minds turn to first days there is no need for Díaz to tell us what is coming next.
Between the personal and the universal tragedies is a historical one: of lovers separated by economic migration; of exploitation and exhaustion, and the toll they take on relationships; of racism that is internalised by its victims, as when Yunior’s tormented, tormenting father drags him to a barber who knows what to do with the “pelo malo” (“bad”, or kinky, hair); and of a self-defeating machismo that passes so easily from generation to generation. (“From my perspective,” offers Yunior, reflecting on his infidelities and the blanket dismissal of Dominican men by Magda’s friends, “it wasn’t genetics; there were reasons. Causalities.”)
The great sadness of this often very funny book is that, as he ages, it becomes harder for Yunior to reconcile the different sides of his life. In the final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love”, we accompany him through his break-up with a fiancée and the five years of suffering that follow. There is redemption and the dominant tone is regret, of a wiser Yunior casting an unsparing eye on his earlier self-deceptions and cruelties. But the self-deception hasn’t quite lifted, nor are the cruelties entirely disavowed.
For a writer such as Díaz, whose art is so cumulative and self-referential, the treatment of his character here seems almost reckless; though perhaps there is a clue in the luminescent “Otravida, Otravez”, the only story narrated by someone other than Yunior. Yasmin, a hospital laundress, describes her lover and the letters he receives from his estranged wife back in the Dominican Republic. (Their names, Ramón and Virta, are those Díaz uses for Yunior’s own parents in Drown, and while other details suggest they cannot be the same people, the resonance is surely intentional.)
As Ramón strives to realise his dream of home-ownership in subprime-era America, the threat that he will return to his wife hangs over Yasmin, as does the possibility that he will suffer a workplace accident of the kind he witnesses and relates to her in the opening pages. Love, for these characters, really is everything, but it is also compromised and unbearably fragile. In Yasmin’s words: “Ana Iris once asked me if I loved him and I told her about the lights in my old home in the capital, how they flickered and you never knew if they would go out or not. You put down your things and you waited and couldn’t do anything really until the lights decided. This, I told her, is how I feel.”
Lorien Kite is the FT’s books editor