Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review: Dogs of Babel

A few weeks ago, I meandered my way through Book Leggers, a used book store in my neighborhood, looking for some good reads. As I perused the shelves, I stumbled across a book with a sleeping woman and dog on the cover called The Dogs of Babel. Intrigued by the title and synopsis n the back of the book, I took it home and began reading.

The Dogs of Babel tells the story of Paul Iverson and his dog, Lorelei. Lorelei is the only witness to Paul's wife, Lexy's, death. Lexy, it seems climbed up the apple tree in the their backyard and fell. The police rule it an accident, but Paul, stricken by grief, begins to find inconsistencies around their home that lead him to believe her fall might have not be an accident. Paul also gets hooked on the idea of teaching  Lorelei to speak in the hopes that she can tell him just what happened in the backyard that day.

This novel started out a little slow for me, with the first couple of chapters dragging a bit. It quickly picks up the and the interest level rises immediately. As I got deeper into the story of Paul and  Lorelei and the lengths he was willing to go to to get her to communicate with him, I found myself being sucked in and getting caught up in their world, unable to put the book down.

What I found most fascinating is that this story is written by a woman, Carolyn Parkhurst. The author is female and the narrator is male. What fascinates me is that it genuinely feels like man speaking. I recall at one point I turned the book to the back cover to check over something in the synopsis and I saw the author's head shot. I was shocked for a second, having forgotten that the author was actually a woman. Parkhurst does a wonderful job of capturing the male voice and not wavering in her masculine narration.

The novel is punctuated between the present with Paul and  Lorelei and the past with Paul and Lexy. The reader meets Lexy through a series of flashbacks and recalled memories from Paul. Therefore, the impression the reader gets of Lexy is a little biased because of how Paul remembers her, and it's interesting to see what he divulges of her. Initially, clouded by grief, Paul only remembers the good parts of Lexy. The happiness, the fun and the spontaneity. As the reader gets further into the book, Lexy becomes more human as Paul remembers her flaws, such as a wild temper that tends to run rampant when unleashed. I was interested in seeing this character develop from a state of perfection into one more humanized. And although it's all trough flashbacks, Lexy feels like a fully fleshed-out character.

Paul's connection to  Lorelei is quite touching. She is essentially all he has left and it's obvious she means a great deal to him. As a pet owner myself, I know just how strong that bond can be and that comes across clearly in this novel. Their journey together through their grief is also incredibly riveting. Simply, Paul wants to teach  Lorelei to speak. After a few failed attempts and actually speaking words, he tries to teach her how to type, even going to far as to have a special keyboard made that uses symbol and pictures instead of letters to type out sentences. It's easy to feel for Paul and develop a connection to his character as he desperately tries to solve the apparent mystery of his wife's death.

Paul's new work with  Lorelei leads him to some shady places. A big part of his research resolves around the character of Wendall  Hollis, a man jailed for trying to surgically enhance dogs in order to extract human speech from them. Also a man who famously got a dog to speak and it took the stand at his trial. Paul writes to Hollis, telling him of his own work, and Hollis in turn sets Paul up with a group of his followers. With a na├»ve hope of learning, Paul attends the meeting but quickly realizes he has gone down a very wrong path. Unfortunately, here and a few other points in the novel, Parkhurst has introduced the topic of animal cruelty. It's a big unsettling to read, and I wouldn't recommend it if you can't stomach it. It's tragic and really tugs at the heartstrings. This is my only real problem with this novel as I wasn't quite expecting it and it really took me off guard, momentarily turning my off from continuing.

The Dogs of Babel wraps up nicely in the end, a year after Lexy's death. Paul has gotten some closure and things begin to settle down. For the most part, I really enjoyed this novel save for the uncomfortable parts I just had to get through.

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