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[168] The Dogs of Babel – Carolyn Parkhurst

dogbabel“But reading these words now, they seem to me very sad. I see that they can also be words of kindness, words of protection. An incantation, a wish to avoid causing pain. How often since Lexy’s death have I wished for eyes that could not cry, a heart that could not grieve?” [237]

Novel that opens with a death intrigues me. The presentiment of of what might reveal from backtracking events is simply irresistible. Linguistics professor Paul Iverson’s life is turned upside town when the body of his young wife, Lexy, is found at the bottom of their backyard apple tree. Only Lorelei, their eight-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback and sole witness to the tragedy, knows what happens and is able to answer the question: Did she fall or did she jump?

Paul takes on a perilous journey to unveil the truth. The bereaved widower is determined to teach the baffled canine to talk. He contrives to coax words out of the dog by making her thirsty—for he believes the random wa sound she utters means water. Parkhurst in an interview recalls how she dreaded the premise might suspend readers’ belief. But that Paul is the narrator of the novel, that readers learn everything about Lexy through the filtered perception of Paul, whose love for Lexy is obviously less complicated than hers for him, renders the story believable. Soon after the “honeymoon” is over, in their bouts of domestic arguments, we begin to see a more accurate picture of Lexy whose more troubling aspects of her personality has become repulsive to Paul. For the first time, he thinks about leaving her because a life without her is happier.

“For a moment, only for a moment, I saw my life without her and I saw it to be better. Easier. Lighter.” [250]

After the fresh grief of Paul has petered out, given he does not have the full understanding of Lexy’s fear of losing loved ones, the whole scientific pursuit to coax words out of the canine becomes a valid and reasonable concept. His detrimental encounter with the Cerberus Society who attempts to make dogs talk by altering their anatomy through grisly amateur surgery is only the logical but extreme outcome: Paul is at wit’s end to what really happens to Lexy.

The Dogs of Babel stitches together the gap between what a man knows about his loved one and the shocking dark side of what he doesn’t know. It also draws the parallel between his unconditional love for his wife and that of man’s best friend. The novel begs the question: How well do we ever know another person? The outlandish elements like the death masks, the psychic readings, and weird dreams work surprisingly well to reinstate the idea that one can never fully comprehend another. Paul ruefully reflects on Lexy’s last day as being the most ordinary day of their marriage, betraying no sign of menace.

Paul’s struggle is to come to terms of all the parts of Lexy’s personality after her death. The dark, harrowing aspects that she conceals so well as if she is wearing a mask is the cause of his regret and grief. I found the book very beautiful, creative, but sad—the husband comes to learn fully of who the person is after the wife dies. The bereavement forays into a drapery of loving memories in their marriage.

The Sunday Salon: Café Comfort

The Sunday Salon.com
dogbabelI woke up to the warm clammy air that lingered on overnight. Sixty-five degrees at five-thirty in the morning. This is very unusual for San Francisco at this time for the year. The rain that poured down in sheets two weeks ago, the wetness that was tell-tale of winter’s onset, is no more. By seven-thirty, ensconced at my favorite corner table at the cafe, rays of sun tingled the back of my neck with an unusual fierceness—this was going to be a warm day. I kept my gaze focused on my new book, The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. As gurgle and sizzle of the expresso machine greeted the early birds, the cafe came to life. I lingered over my (first cup of) coffee for an hour, watching the sun shift across the cafe, illuminating each panel of window.

After the heavy reading about self-affirmation and religion that Jane Eyre has enlightened me, I have to read something lighter to ease up my mind. Although The Dogs of Babel does not fully qualify for a beach read, it’s a well-written story about recovering the loss of a spouse. When Linguist Paul Iverson found his wife dead in the backyard, fallen from the apple tree, he began a quest to solve the mystery of Lexy’s death with the help of the only witness: their dog, Lorelei, a Rhodesian Ridgeback.

Tender and down-to-earth, this novel reminds me of Enzo, the philosophical dog from The Art of Racing in the Rain except Lorelei doesn’t talk. Paul wishes. He contrives to coax words out of the canine in order to shed light on what really happened. The book also touches on the subject of dog mutilation that is reminiscent of Heart of a Dog but the extent with which this is explored is less daring and is more true-to-life. I can’t help thinking what my dog might tell me. He watches me, follows me and locks into my daily routine. What is he thinking? Does he feel comfortable at home? Does he like the park I take him to? Would dogs still be man’s best friend if they speak the common tongue?

“There is a kind of grieving that dogs do, a patient waiting for homecoming, a sniffing for a scent that is no longer there. Since Lexy died, I have often seen Lorelei sitting at the top of the basement stairs, listening for noises from the workshop below. This morning, I find her in the bedroom, sleeping stretched out on one of Lexy’s sweaters.” [63]

What are you reading this weekend?