The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst
Back Bay Books, 2003

This work of fiction is singular.

It has an original plot. A deeply grieving man is obsessed with teaching his dog, the only witness to his wife’s death, to talk, so he can know the details of how she died. Every word, every sentence, flowed from the man’s grief, his dog obsession or the wife’s death.

It has only one plot. Teach the dog to tell the tale. There are no subplots for occasional diversion, no secondary persons who are anything other than necessary to explain circumstance without embellishment, or to move the plot forward. It is a story involving the life of an academic without backstory. No parents, childhood trauma or exceedingly pressing questions of existence. No explanation, justification or even curiosity of the wife’s disturbing quirks.

It seems a singular Frankenstein style. Frankenstein because I can’t remember when I’ve read a book that seems so tightly constructed in MFA author precision and popular market twists. The first sentence is head on popular market with a when and where scene of death that sets up the story. The second sentence sets up the teller’s obsessive questions of mental circumstance. The story is well-edited and moves on polished, well-placed rhythmic story points likely to please a writing professor. The tension builds, my curiosity didn’t wane and the touch of dog mutilation was enough horror to keep a popular reader, not enough for an avid thriller fan and not too much for the few sensitives among us to plug through.

It understood grief. Parkhurst had a strong plot reliance on the man’s grief questions and issues of his wife’s death. Her knowledge of its anguish seemed so deep that it was unnoticeable in its presentation. She built on grief’s emotional underworld of unanswered questions in traumatic death that can temporarily destroy an otherwise sane person’s life as he struggles to continue.

An author who can garner five pages of endorsements at the front of the book doesn’t need mine. But if I had been asked, I would have offered: When his wife dies, a shy academic’s life explodes into a twisted savage plan to find peace and redemption. A meticulously crafted story through grief’s underworld that stays on point in bleak territory I was glad to leave though it was worth the book price of admission.

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