Recent Review of Damnificados

In his debut novel Damnificados, JJ Amaworo Wilson has created a unique yet familiar world. No doubt reflecting Wilson’s experiences living in the United Kingdom, Egypt, Lesotho, Colombia, England, Italy, and the United States, the story is set in a fascinatingly diverse, polyglot city surrounded by an equally multi-national countryside. As an analytical, often literal-minded reader, I spent some mental energy at first trying to determine where on Earth I was: South America felt right at first, but the place names seemed to come not only from Spanish and Portuguese but also French, Arabic, Mandarin, and Eastern European languages (Czech?). After a short while I allowed myself to relax and just enjoy my new, exciting surroundings.

Although aspects of the world of Damnificados may seem foreign and exotic; the vivid, precise, and insightful description transports the reader easily. I found myself thinking, “Oh yes, I’ve been there.”

Up to this point I have had mixed reactions to fiction incorporating magical realism. Often I have read such works and found the introduction of “magical” or supernatural elements to be jarring. In some cases, I have had difficulty seeing how a supernatural element enhanced the story. Damnificados changed this for me. The realistic and modern elements blend so naturally with the unexpected, magical elements that the whole story is seamless, believable, and engrossing. The storyline shifts organically from contemporary plotline to historical account, from slightly unusual characters or odd occurrences to unnatural occurrences. When something happens that defies the natural order of things, at first the reader may not even notice. Nothing is superfluous; every magical event in Damnificados has been added to the story for a reason.

Flawed and broken, resilient and authentic human beings underlie every part of the book. I saw the strengths, weaknesses, talents, and quirks of the communities to which I belong reflected in the damnificados’ community. I particularly loved the characters’ unique ingenuity, especially characters that society would normally consider weak. One of my favorite sections of the book describes the variety of incredible skills developed by professional garbage-sorters before the Fourth Trash War, including a woman “who could fill a gunnysack of recyclable metal in ten minutes, or so the legend goes.” Character portraits and legends such as this add a strong dose of humor to Damnificados.

Damnificados intersperses heartwarming, authentic, and humorous episodes with suspense, misfortune, and tragedy. At times it seems as if there is no escape, but survivors emerge from disaster to rebuild and improve their community. Life and love persists. The story also presents less dramatic but universally recognizable anxieties and problems. I felt the characters’ pain and gained consolation from their hope.

By blending the realistic with the epic, Wilson has allowed readers to immerse themselves in a world that is simultaneously familiar and new. The results are exciting to experience.

-Lillian Galloway, Festival steering committee member and public library liaison

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