I read a story recently that swept me into other worlds, other lives. It’s a book I’d recommend for a day when you have time stretched before you, time to get lost in characters and language, in deft plots and rich complexities. Read on.
Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel.
Opening: “Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story . . .” What a beginning!
What kept me reading: Complex character development, drawn with a spare hand. A rich plot that escalates to a conclusion that surprises, even as you know it’s coming.
Paul Iverson is an academic, a slightly befuddled linguist subsumed by grief for his dead wife. Inside the space of that sorrow, he decides to teach their dog, Lorelei, to speak in order to discover what she knows about those last minutes of Lexy’s life. Paul is a man of compassion, of great insight, and profound love, driven to extremes in his quest for the truth. I couldn’t help but follow him on each strange twist and turn.
Lexy Ransome is dead before the novel starts, but Parkhurst’s skilled use of flashbacks makes Lexy seem very much alive. An artist who creates elaborate and breaktaking masks, Lexy is also a troubled, passionate woman who has struggled with a lifetime of erratic moods and depression. Parkhurst draws her with such compassion, through Paul’s eyes, that I found myself wishing for the impossible: that somehow, despite what we know from the start, Lexy will still live. That’s an accomplishment.
Lorelei, the last of the trio, is a a Rhodesian Ridgeback dog. She’s Lexy’s, and then she’s theirs together and then, once Lexy dies, she is the peg that Paul holds tight. Lorelei is exhuberant and loyal, but has her own dark past, her own horrid secrets. That Parkhurst manages to create such a compelling character out of four legs and fur is one of the novel’s great attractions.
The plot drew me along from the first, and kept me turning pages late into the night. Parkhurst weaves together threads that might seem disparate: a New Orleans ghost, an underground group of dog abusers, a psychic hotline, death masks, German myths and old Scottish poems, the dislogic of dreams and the insidious complexity of depression. At the heart of it all is a compelling romance that begins, improbably, with square eggs and Disney World and develops into a strong relationship portrayed with honesty and depth. I couldn’t put it down.
Favorite quotation: “to inhabit the same space as absence and to keep living anyhow” (128). Powerful!
How about you? What books have you read lately and loved?