Carolyn Parkhurst: The Dogs Of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst: The Dogs Of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst may owe Alice Sebold a karmic debt. Sebold's phenomenal success with The Lovely Bones, a quirky, lyrical, fantasy-tinged debut novel about death and grieving, likely influenced publishers to look seriously at Parkhurst's The Dogs Of Babel, a quirky, lyrical, fantasy-tinged debut novel about death and grieving. But superficial descriptors aside, Parkhurst's work stands on its own, and even manages a story solidity that Bones didn't quite achieve. Like Bones, The Dogs Of Babel begins with a death, as linguistics professor Paul Iverson learns that his wife Lexy has taken a fatal plunge from their backyard apple tree. The police assume her fall was accidental, and Paul doesn't dissuade them, but he begins totting up anomalies: a rearranged bookshelf, a used frying pan with no accompanying dishes or utensils, the fact that Lexy had never shown any interest in climbing trees. The only witness to her mysterious death was her dog Lorelei, so Paul decides he must teach Lorelei to talk in order to fit the scattered pieces together. He begins in a rational, organized, professorly fashion, but his lack of success pushes him to quixotic monomania, and eventually to contact with a convicted criminal who performed illegal and often fatal surgeries on dogs, with some measure of success. The Dogs Of Babel alternates between Paul's obsessive efforts and his memories of his time with Lexy, an emotionally complicated, talented artist prone to mood swings and grand gestures. Their early romance is occasionally too precious, and Paul's penchant for sudden impenetrable coldness makes him an unsubtly disturbing protagonist. But those factors tend to balance each other out, as though Parkhurst is pointing out the hidden truth behind romance tales: People are far more complex than they let on during the courting period, and their lives continue and change in unpredictable ways after the obligatory happy ending. Parkhurst's unexpected twists can be disappointing–she rarely keeps to a single subplot for long, and she leaves a host of interesting ideas by the wayside long before she's fully explored them–but they keep her book lively and unpredictable, and her talent for relatively subtle characterization and poetic whimsy flesh out some of her less plausible touches. Ultimately, Alice Sebold fans will probably enjoy The Dogs Of Babel, but Connie Willis fans may be a more appropriate audience. Like Willis, Parkhurst turns fantasy into mystery into elegy, and pulls the whole package together with a touching, sad ending that cleverly sews disparate threads into a haunting whole.

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