book review: There There by Tommy Orange

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THERE THERE by Tommy Orange
★★★☆☆
Knopf, 2018

 

Powerful but uneven. It’s easy to see why There There has been one of 2018’s most beloved books – it provides a much-needed look at the urban Native American experience, which Orange takes pains to remind us is a rich and varied culture that has endured unspeakable violence and hardship, and which our contemporary American society is still ready to stereotype and dismiss. The sheer breadth of voices here speaks to Orange’s vision with this novel, as do the flawlessly written prologue and interlude, which provide the reader with a brief but succinct idea of the cultural context in which Orange is writing.

But the tapestry of perspectives that Orange attempts to weave doesn’t fully come together for me – I think there were a few too many POVs shoehorned in at the detriment of plot and character development. Keeping track of the threads between the characters became a bit of a chore – apparently a character needs only be mentioned once for them to have a significant role in the narrative that we should remember 75 pages down the line – and the ways in which some of their stories converged was beyond contrived. I would have been happier to read about ten different characters’ disparate lives in a sort of thematically connected short story collection and been spared the awkward attempt to braid their lives together. For example, one character finds out that he has fathered not one but TWO children he hadn’t known about, and these two individuals happen to be friends with one another… I’m happy for a novel to employ this sort of narrative device when fate is being used as a prominent theme, but in There There it just felt like unnecessary coincidence. And I unapologetically love a bit of melodrama, so the novel’s conclusion didn’t bother me for its theatricality as much as the fact that it felt like a rather hastily drawn attempt to tie up a bunch of narratives that hadn’t organically run their course. Maybe that was the point, I don’t know. But I think this should have been longer – its denouement could have used some more room to breathe.

Nonetheless, it’s an impressive debut. Orange ruminates with a surprising amount of depth not only on Native identity, but also on themes like alcoholism, domestic violence, and sexual assault. It’s a short book that packs a powerful punch and I’ll definitely be interested in reading whatever Tommy Orange writes next. There There just felt like a rough draft of something that had the potential to be even more hard-hitting.