Fiction – paperback; Back Bay Books; 264 pages; 2003.
The Dogs of Babel is a truly original, off-beat story by first-time novelist Carolyn Parkhurst.
Published in the UK under the title Lorelei’s Secret, I mooched this on a whim from a reader in Switzerland. “I really liked this book,” she wrote in a note tucked inside the front cover, “It was much better than I expected.” To which I have to concur.
The story is about Paul, a 40-something college professor on a quest to discover whether his wife’s death was an accident or suicide: Lexy had fallen out of a tree in the couple’s back garden while he was at work. The only witness to the tragic event was their dog, a Rhodesian ridgeback called Lorelei.
Paul, who teaches linguistics, decides to embark on a strange scientific experiment: he plans to teach Lorelei to talk so that she can tell him what she saw on that fateful day. His decision to carry out such a plainly absurd exercise earns him the wrath of friends and colleagues, but Paul firmly believes it is the only way he can solve “certain anomalies” of Lexy’s death. These anomalies involve a strange set of “clues”: the couple’s vast collection of books have been rearranged so they are no longer in their normal positions, and on the day of Lexy’s death Lorelei had been fed a 20-ounce steak that Paul had been planning to barbecue that night on the grill.
Maybe these events mean nothing. After all, I am a grieving man, and I am trying very hard to find some sense in my wife’s death. But the evidence I have discovered is sufficiently strange to make me wonder what really happened that day, whether it was really a desire for apples that led my sweet wife to climb to the top of that tree. Lorelei is my witness, not just to Lexy’s death but to all the events leading up to it. She watched Lexy move through her days and her nights. She was there for the unfolding of our marriage from its first day to its last. Simply put, she knows things I don’t. I feel I must do whatever I can to unlock that knowledge.
As crazy as the premise of this book might sound, the story seems entirely plausible throughout — there’s no need to suspend belief or to wonder if the author might have been taking hallucinogenic drugs when she wrote it! You become truly convinced of Paul’s faith in his experiment even though its folly is clear from the outset.
Putting aside the kookiness of the subject matter, The Dogs of Babel is actually a very fine portrait of a marriage and the way in which ordinary people react when thrust into extraordinary situations. The style is hugely reminiscent of Anne Tyler, an author who has an uncanny ability to write about daily life and small-scale domestic dramas so that each moment, each character is imbued with emotional importance.
And there are touches of Chuck Palahniuk, too, namely in the surreal nature of Paul’s quest and his eventual run-in with a secret cult that believes it is possible to make dogs talk.
But the real beauty of the book is Parkhurst’s steady drip-feed of information which she supplies via a series of flashbacks in which Paul reminisces about his wife: how they met and fell in love; what it was like settling into marriage; and how the first cracks began to appear in their near-perfect relationship. While we only ever get to experience their marriage through Paul’s eyes, it doesn’t take long to see that everything is not quite as it seems.
The pleasure of this clever, emotional and occasionally winsome novel is trying to work out what really happened to Lexy long before Paul does. A love story and mystery all rolled into one, I read it in two sittings and enjoyed every moment.