Review: The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhust (2003)

Every once in a while, I’m completely taken by surprise by a book that seems to come out of nowhere and knock me off my feet. This is one of life’s little surprises that I love.

It happened again with The Dogs of Babel. Though it has “national bestseller” plastered all over it, I’d never heard of this book before it caught my eye on a shelf of new paperbacks in the library. I barely read the description, and between the provocative cover and the general subject matter, I checked it out on a whim. Now, I’m recommending it to everyone.

Stories of death and grieving aren’t that unusual. In her first novel, author Carolyn Parkhurst takes that kernel of a story and sets it apart with a unique twist, a well-drawn central character, genuine moments of poignancy and heartbreak, some mystery, a little suspense, and an ending that’s satisfying and deeply moving.

Paul Iverson’s wife Lexy dies when she falls (or did she jump?) from an apple tree in the backyard. As he grapples with the loss, Paul turns to their dog Lorelei for answers. She was the only witness to the accident, she shared the last hours of his wife’s life, and no one knew Lexy better than her constant companion Lorelei. Driven by grief, Paul, a university linguist, becomes convinced that he can teach Lorelei to talk, and get from her the information he so desperately needs.

So, right here I should stop and say a) No, you don’t need to be a dog person to empathize and/or enjoy this book. I’m not and I did. And, b) Yes, you definitely need to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief. With Parkhurst’s style and construction of the story, that’s surprisingly easy to do.  The narrative alternates back-and forth between past and present, working in from both directions–the beginning of Lexy and Paul’s relationship and the end of her life. What initially seems to be a straightforward, albeit offbeat, story soon develops into a more layered, complex tale a blossoming romance, a troubled woman, an earnest and conflicted narrator, and his dog.

The construction of the story and the small but telling details that appear throughout, are what makes The Dogs of Babel such an enjoyable book to read. It’s filled with tiny touches that individually add depth and grace to the story, and collectively add up to so much more–just like in real life. [*****]

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