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The Dogs of Babel    by Carolyn Parkhurst order for
Dogs of Babel
by Carolyn Parkhurst
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2003 (2003)
Hardcover, Audio

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Dogs of Babel is an elegant construction about a linguist, whose grief on the death of his maskmasker wife launches him on a bizarre quest in search of understanding. The novel opens as university professor Paul Iverson discovers that his beloved wife Lexy has died in a fall from an apple tree, witnessed only by her Rhodesian Ridgeback Lorelei. The police judge it accidental but Paul wonders why she was up there in the first place.

Then he finds anomalies at home - book rearranged on the shelves and a steak intended for their dinner fed to the dog. To the shock of his colleagues, Paul, 'an ordinary man who wanted to know things no human being could tell him', announces a new research direction, through which he hopes to communicate with the canine witness to Lexy's death. The author enriches the novel with research into historical attempts to teach dogs to speak, as well as variations on talking-dog jokes.

Parkhurst also gives us flashbacks into the couple's first meeting and their life together. After Paul tells himself to 'Close your eyes and remember the moment, the warm pink life of it', the picture emerges of a talented woman who 'liked to make a game of the things of this life'. There are hints also of a disturbed personality, with an underlying rage and past trauma that she hides under a succession of masks. Why was Lexy suicidal as a teen and why does she so vehemently reject the idea of children?

Paul's search for answers takes him down a dark and futile path. It damages his reputation and puts both himself and Lorelei at risk, but finally does provide illumination to the professor and to the reader. The novel ends, appropriately, with another talking-dog joke. I recommend The Dogs of Babel for reading groups as well as individuals - you'll want to explore its depths with friends.

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