"The Dogs of Babel"
(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 01, 2003)"This is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: Lexy didn't jump. The wounds she suffered in her fall, the break of her bones and the wreck of her organs, the haphazard spill of her blood in the dirt, have told us this much. But perhaps, and this is where my breath catches in my throat, perhaps she let herself fall."
There is an online Reading Group that I lurk on (I wish I had time to participate) that has a running joke about novels that include "a dog barking off in the distance;" somehow that's become an indicator that it's going to be a "bad book." Obviously, it's an unfair generalization, but they have fun with it. So, here I am reading a book called The Dogs of Babel, which nearly begins with a dog not just barking but giving an endless, keening howl from the backyard. So, I'm chuckling thinking what this would mean to the certain few who judge a book by a dog's bark. But let me back up a bit here and begin again.
The premise of this novel is that Paul Iverson, a Linguistics professor, calls home to tell to his wife something, but instead is surprised by a Detective Stark who answers the phone. When Paul identifies himself, the Detective advises that Paul come home right away, as there has been an accident. It turns out that his wife, Lexy Ransome, was killed from a fall from an overgrown apple tree in their backyard. Investigation shows that the fall was an accident and not suicide. Yet, it seems that Paul does not fully believe this. He questions the inconsistencies from her last day alive, the day of the fall. For one thing, she fed that evening's planned dinner to the dog before she climbed up the tree; and for another, she rearranged all the books on only one bookshelf - the one in his office. Small things but enough to unsettle Paul. Because it is Lorelei's barking that brings the police to their home, he begins to see Lorelei as the one witness to the fall. Thus he decides to take a sabbatical for a research project in which he experiments with teaching Lorelei, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, to talk. If he's successful, she'll tell him what happened on that last day.
Yes, this is a strange enough premise, or at least that's what I thought. But because Paul is such a personal narrator, I quickly fell into the book. Actually as a storyline, the premise works well, by moving the story along giving not only the book a structure to hang onto, but it also gives something for Paul to hang onto in these terrible months after Lexy's death. And the bits about linguistics and dogs is as interesting as the rest, although there is one part of the book that is difficult to get through. I'm not an overt dog lover, as anyone who knows me will attest to, but even I had a hard time with this part of the book; though brief, theses images, like the rest of the book, last long after the book is finished.
Despite the premise, this novel is not about talking dogs; that would be silly. The Dogs of Babel is a moving narration from a man who nearly loses his mind trying to figure out if his wife committed suicide and if she did, at what point did she decide it was time to kill herself. It is about realizing what you do and do not know about another person and finally, that it is all right not to know everything about a person.
"It's true isn't it, that each of us has two hearts? The secret heart, curled up behind a fist, living gnarled and shrunken beneath the plain, open one we use every day... It's not the content of our dreams that gives our second heart its dark color; it's the thoughts that go through our heads in those wakeful moments when sleep won't come. And those are the things we never tell anyone at all."
Paul Iverson is an interesting narrator because he tells the story as it unfolds from the first phone call home right up to the present day when he finally has his answer and can go on with the rest of his life. But getting there is interesting as he shares the mystery of Lexy's life and death; the story being in the details, whether he's just talking about their day-to-day life together or when he's telling us about the big moments. He shares with how they met (at a yard sale), their first (week long) date, and the good times and the bad, as well as those things that Lexy related to him about her past. Lexy is an artist; her specialty is designing masks, which is an obvious metaphor for this book, but it goes beyond that since her craft is so well imagined by the author. And lest we forget Paul's occupation, there are some lovely passages that treat us to how the world must be for a linguist, "The miracle of it is still so fresh in my mind, the strangeness she brought into my life almost from the moment we met. I felt as if, after a lifetime of listening, of parsing sentences and analyzing word choices without ever opening my mouth, I was having a conversation for the first time." Sure, there are a few details that seem a little too kitschy (like making square eggs), but none of it is unrealistic, especially if you firmly believe that love does happen in a magical instant, as I do.
There is one thing in fiction that is always a tricky thing and that is when the narrator turns out not to be reliable. Paul is a desperate narrator. Naturally, part of this story is the guilt one feels if a loved one commits suicide, which one has to believe he believes or else why would he behave in such a rash manner. Clearly he has put his entire professional career at risk and even he knows that he is the laughing stock of the linguistics department trying to get Lorelei to speak. It's not until the end do we realize that our narrator is little less than reliable in his telling of events and what he knows. In fact, he has left out a big chunk of information, though it's not likely he did this intentionally, at least I don't see it this way. Rationalization is such a human trait and it is best accomplished by mentally blocking a few (important) facts. Though, I'll admit, it's hard not to get a little mad at the narrator at about this point. But, Paul is a smooth narrator and we gladly move on with him to the novel's conclusion.
I really enjoy when books appear to be just a simple form of writing and then in their simplicity tell a whopping good story that is so visual that images from the story just stick with you. It's very easy to see Lexy for the free and creative spirit that she is and for Paul as the stodgy professor who obviously needs a woman like Lexy, and all her playfulness, in his life. And all of this could border on stereotype if the author wasn't consistently sticking in tiny memorable details. So let me assure you that there is not a single line in this book about "a dog barking in the distance." No, this is all up front and personal. Paul Iverson just needs to talk this whole thing through with us so that he can finally have perspective on himself, Lexy and even Lorelei. And certainly it would give any book group enough to talk about.
- Amazon readers rating: from 418 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from The Dogs of Babel at MostlyFiction.com
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Dogs of Babel (2003) (Called Lorelei's Secret in UK)
- Lost and Found (2006)
- The Nobodies Album ( 2010)
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- Official website for Carolyn Parkhurst
- Reading Group Guide for The Dogs of Babel
- MostlyFiction.com review of Lost and Found
- MostlyFiction.com review of The Nobodies Album
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About the Author:
Carolyn Parkhurst grew up in Waltham, Massachusetts. She majored in English at Wesleyan University and after college she worked in a bookstore for three years, then went and got her M.F.A. in creative writing from American University. She married in 1998 and they had their first child in January 2002, the day after she finished The Dogs of Babel. They live in Washington, D.C.