Reviewed by Anri Wheeler
The first chapter of World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments (Milkweed Editions, 2020) by Aimee Nezhukumatathil opens with a Catalpa Tree in western Kansas. The tree is both literal and metaphor. Its protective shade and oversized leaves ready us for the natural wonders that are to come. The gorgeous prose that carries through the 27 chapters that follow, like the unseen tree roots, hold us steady through the myriad ways the fauna and flora we encounter come to signify so much more. The chapter ends with us under the largest Catalpa in Mississippi, another place whose significance will continue to spread out for the reader like the bus-length branches of the tree. We’ve moved seamlessly from Midwest to South, from the United States to the Philippines, from Nezhukumatathil’s childhood to her motherhood and back. This ability to keep the reader present with the narrator while she moves around geographically and along the timeline of the book is, like the tree, a delightful microcosm of the entire book.
As we weave our way through Nezhukumatathil’s memoir, equally meaningful are the manmade items that serve as signposts for the reader: a key on a yarn necklace around a little girl’s neck, 35-cent Little Debbie brownies, thrift store jeans, a Sheaffer fountain pen. Place ties everything together, and comes to be as central to stories as are their inhabitants, human and non. We follow Nezhukumatathil in search of dragon fruits through the Lau Pa Sat market in Singapore, snorkeling in a six-million-gallon tank at the Georgia Aquarium, slick with the Kerala rain, gorging on the citrus her parents grow in central Florida, and waiting on the shores of Thasos to hold an octopus in her hands as its three hearts beat for the final time. Though there are plenty of details we never get, gaps we must fill in ourselves, each chapter is lush with layered meaning. Individually, they shine different-colored lights onto the book’s characters, collectively they form a prism through which we can view the colorful swirl that is a life.
Equally astonishing are the illustrations by Fumi Mini Nakamura that grace the cover and many of the pages throughout the book.
Each animal we encounter teaches us something about itself and, in turn, Nezhukumatathil: the beauty and longing of a peacock; the quiet ferocity of an axolotl; a monsoon that is at once powerful, evocative, and mundane. The most wonderous part of reading this book was the element of constant surprise. Individual chapters, any of which could stand alone, begin with something concrete, and within the span of a few pages, zoom out to encompass the deep profundity of recurring themes including home, motherhood, and mortality, often ending with a deeply satisfying twist. A chapter named after a putrid smelling flower ends with sweet smelling petals and matrimony. The meanings of freedom and mortality are felt through an encounter with a whale shark. Eye contact with a cephalopod cracks open exhilaration and despair. And, in the chapter that most touched this reader (also the daughter of an immigrant mother), a small amphibian teaches us that home is where you make it.
In “Firefly (Redux),” the final chapter, Nezhukumatathil returns to themes introduced in the first “Firefly,” the book’s second chapter: the role of humans in disrupting so much of what is alive on this planet; how we can’t slow time, but we can shift how we take in the world around us. “Firefly” also revealed that by the time we see their electric glow, these insects of the beetle order are a week or two from their death. In reading this breathtaking book, we are reminded that there is so much more to see before our own.
World of Wonders: In Praise of Fireflies, Whale Sharks, and Other Astonishments, is the sort of book you know you will reread, long before you have finished it for the first time. It rekindles wonder and sparks joy at a time when both are sorely needed. It feels doubly apt to read now, as a global pandemic rages on, as we are unable to see loved ones and travel to many of the places that are most meaningful to us, as humans continue to destroy the natural world with abandon. Nezhukumatathil is here to remind us that a single firefly “can light a memory I thought was lost…make me feel like I’m traveling again to a gathering of loved ones… Its luminescence could very well be the spark that reminds us to make a most necessary turn…toward cherishing this magnificent and wondrous planet.”