Thursday, December 17

The Dogs of Babel - Carolyn Parkhurst

Linguist Paul Iverson is devastated by his wife Lexy's death - her body was found beneath an apple tree in their garden, and though the death was found to be accidental, he can't let go of the inconsistencies. Lexy had never climbed the tree before, she seemed to have eaten a steak without using any utensils, and she'd rearranged one of their bookshelves. But Lexy's not around to explain what happened, and the only witness is their eight year old Rhodesian ridgeback, Lorelei.
Struck by inspiration, Paul takes a sabbatical from his university and concentrates on trying to teach Lorelei to speak. There are historical cases of talking animals, and Wendell Hollis, the 'Dog Butcher of Brooklyn' was convicted by the testimony of Dog J, one of the dogs he mutilated in his pursuit of canine speech.
I delayed reading The Dogs of Babel for such a long time, because I so enjoyed my Lost and Found, my first Parkhurst experience, that I was afraid of ruining the memory of I didn't enjoy this. I need not have delayed - though very different from Lost and Found, The Dogs of Babel is as absorbing and fascinating. I intended to read only a chapter or two, but found myself reading the novel in a single sitting this morning.
The plot combines a love story with a mystery, as we go between the present and the history of their relationship. Lexy is a nuanced, gifted, creative and enigmatic character, portrayed through the loving but clear sighted eyes of her loving husband. He reveals less of himself, primarily in contrast to her, but his voice is all the more powerful for that. And while the plot is gripping, it's the complexity and psychological makeup of the protagonists that drew me in and kept me spell-bound.
Parkhurst has a gift for creating psychological profiles effortlessly - as Paul catalogues the order of the rearranged bookshelf, noting which books belonged to whom, layers of additional insight paint the reader's picture of them both.* Paul deconstructs names to uncover the words contained within them:
Break open Lexy Ransome and you find omen and sexy and soar. Lost and rose. Yearn and near and anymore. See how it works? It doesn't bear thinking about. It couldn't be any clearer. Only one letter away from remorse, and one letter away from answer.
This is a powerful tale of loss, grief, forgiveness, truth, understanding, fear, compassion and above all love, with a touch of horror and an intermittent sprinkling of talking dog books. Masks, dreams and art recur, and I know that re-reading this book, after a little space, will give me even more to think about. - Alex

* And for the wanton bibliophile, create a reading list on their own. How have I managed without reading Mary Had a Little Lamb: Language Acquisition in Childhood; I'd Rather Be Parsing: The Linguistics of Bumper Stickers, Buttons and T-Shirt Slogans; or The Toad Not Taken: The Linguistic Value of Puns?

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