Book Review: 'There There'

Jul 9, 2018

Every so often, a book comes along that has everyone in book world talking about how amazing it is before it’s even been published. Sometimes, that book actually lives up to the early hype. There There, the debut novel by Tommy Orange, lives up to it and more.

It opens with a piece on the once-ubiquitous black-and-white television test pattern featuring a profile of an Indian Chief above what appears to be a bullseye. What follows is a series of portraits of the members of a modern-day Native community in urban Oakland, California. Individual stories and characters overlap and intertwine, and the novel culminates in a big community powwow.

The novel’s title, There There, comes from an often misunderstood Gertrude Stein quote, also about Oakland, saying “there is no there there.” She meant that things had changed so much she no longer recognized her childhood home. Orange applies that meaning, but also uses it to demonstrate the contemporary Native American’s lack of an easily describable identity.

Much of the novel’s power lies in its language. The writing gallops along, building energy and emotion so strongly that sometimes by the end  of a section I’d have to take a breath, then reread parts more slowly to savor the beauty and impact of what he’d just done. But it’s more than that. There There engages your spirit with empathetic characters, it awakens your mind with imagery, and it keeps you turning the pages, learning about a complicated group of Americans.

With this book, you can believe the hype.

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