Those of us who live with animals, like cats or dogs, often share simple but reliable methods of communication with them. We know when they are happy, scared, hungry, angry, or want to play. We may talk to them in our language and think they are talking back to us, but we know we can never really share language with them. Legends of talking dogs and horses abound but seem silly, like the punchlines of jokes, or just plain impossible. But in Carolyn Parkhurst's novel, THE DOGS OF BABEL, the idea of talking dogs is deadly serious.
Paul Iverson's wife died mysteriously, falling from the apple tree in their backyard. The police and medical examiner rule it an accident, but Paul finds some troubling evidence that makes him doubt the conclusion. He feels that his only hope in uncovering the truth of his wife Lexy's last day is their dog Lorelei, who was the only witness to the fall. With this sad and interesting premise, Parkhurst shares with the reader Paul's emotional first year without Lexy. And Paul's search for the truth about her death takes him in frightening directions.
THE DOGS OF BABEL is not a mystery; Paul is not searching for a murderer, only the truth about Lexy and her state of mind on the day she died. A linguist by profession, Paul begins to obsess over the idea that if only Lorelei could somehow share language with him, she could tell him what really happened. He takes a sabbatical from his university position and devotes himself to teaching Lorelei to talk. This desire to learn what Lorelei knows about Lexy's death takes Paul, and the novel, in a bizarre and tense direction as he encounters a group of dog abusers and mutilators, and risks Lorelei's safety. Confronted with the impossibility of getting Lorelei to speak, Paul realizes he must go elsewhere for the answers he is seeking. So he searches his memory and finds a sadness and fear in Lexy that he never clearly saw while she was alive.
This beautifully written novel swings back and forth between the present --- Paul's fixation on not only trying to teach Lorelei to speak but on his attempts to uncover other aspects of Lexy's last days, such as her call to a television psychic and why she rearranged the books on their bookshelves --- and the past, Paul's memories of his years with Lexy in courtship and marriage. But even through the veil of heartbreak, Paul begins to put together the pieces he needs to understand Lexy and the way she died. Lexy, who made her living creating beautiful and one-of-a-kind masks, often hid behind her own creations. For Paul, it becomes essential to strip away Lexy's mask and thus come to terms with her sudden and tragic death.
Masks, talking dogs, square eggs, animal abuse, grief and memory, psychics, marathon dates, death and love: Parkhurst daringly attempts to fit the entirety of Paul's life into less than 300 pages. Part fairy tale and part horror story, Parkhurst captures the sorrow and desperation of both Paul and Lexy. An imperfect but inventive novel, THE DOGS OF BABEL is an emotional and frustrating tale of both the romance and heartbreak of one marriage. Readers willing to indulge Parkhurst just a little as she struggles to fit many ideas and themes into one short novel will find a surprising and original story that, like Paul Iverson, is both naïve and wise.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 21, 2011
The Dogs of Babel