Review: Theory by Dionne Brand

I was about to start this review with the line, “I really enjoyed this novel, but I’ll warn: it’s not for everyone.” Ugh. Who has quarantine made me become? That’s such a trite thing to say. 

Let me try again. I really liked this book, when I was in the right headspace for it. It’s not a beach read, nor a curl-up-on-a-rainy-day read. It’s a book you have to be tuned into to enjoy. 

Our narrator is an unnamed and ungendered (more on that later) late 30s PhD student who has spent at least a decade toiling away on their ambitious and amorphous thesis. They’re brilliant, funny, slightly narcissistic and deeply melancholic. Our narrator tells the timeline of their attempts to complete the thesis through the lens of the major relationships that consumed them throughout the decade. Fittingly, three of the four sections of the book are named after the women in these relationships: Selah, Yara and Odalys. 

Each woman our narrator has dated is fascinating in her own way, but for me, the more interesting aspect of these chapters is the way in which the narrator acts within these relationships and the ways in which the narrator uses the women as either a muse or an anti-muse for the thesis. While our narrator seems to believe that these women deserve at least partial blame for the unfinished thesis, they also believe that these women have deeply shaped the thesis and the narrator’s course of study. 

About that unnamed and ungendered note above – depending on who you ask, the narrator is either an unnamed and ungendered late 30s PhD student, a woman named Teoria, or an ungendered person nicknamed Teoria. Confused? I warned you, you have to be on your A game with this book. 

One of our narrator’s love interests does call them Teoria throughout her chapter (although the narrator does note that Teoria is not their given name). A lot of people read the character of Teoria as a woman, as I originally did. I think the author’s ambiguity on the narrator’s name, gender and race is curious – Brand, a Black Canadian author, is well known for writing about gender, sexuality and race. To leave a question mark in the place of these identifiers is an interesting choice. 

The final of the four chapters is entitled, “Teoria/Theory”. Fittingly, it’s a chapter dedicated to the narrator’s relationship with theirself, their family, and their life’s work: the thesis. This was the chapter that was the hardest to get through; it felt convoluted and scattered, and it seemed to consistently lose focus throughout. Perhaps that’s intentional – perhaps it shows how lost Teoria got in the search for academic superiority. Or perhaps it’s because, for even the author, it’s hard to maintain focus when discussing a thesis for too long. 

Pairs well with: grad school applications, ordering unnecessary office supplies from Staples.

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