How Dare you not be the Person I Think you are....

Dogs ''are allowed access to our most private moments. They are there when we think we are alone.'' (Carolyn Parkhurst, The Dogs of Babel)

Dogs are allowed such access, I think, because they accept us as we are. They make no assumptions. They love us well and they keep their eyes on us even as they look out for us.

The Dogs of Babel, the first book of the brilliant Carolyn Parkhurst juxtaposes the genuine companionship of dogs, who welcome us into their silence, with human relationships. I have read and reread this book with great admiration for her beautiful prose and her ability to make an outlandishly Gothic story believable.

This is the story of Paul Iverson, a husband trying to come to terms with his wife Lexy's sudden death after she falls from an apple tree. Paul can't reconcile his understanding of his wife--the woman he thought he knew--with the woman whose neck is broken from a fall not so long after an argument between them.

So unwilling is Paul the Linguist to accept that Lexy killed herself that he sets out to teach the only witness, the couple's Rhodesian Ridgeback named Lorelei, to speak. That sounds ridiculous, but it isn't at all in the world Parkhurst has created. It all makes strangely perfect sense.

Eventually, Paul comes to realize he didn't much know his wife the artist who spent countless hours in the basement constructing masks for her clients, including the dead. He never understood the Lexy who had an uncanny ability to see people from the inside out, to capture the essence of their inner lives, their dreams and despair, in the masks she formed. Like so many gentle people who kill themselves, Lexy saw too clearly, understood too well, the nature of human beings. She felt the distance between the inner reality and the outward appearance. Her masks set reality aright for the subjects of her art but not for herself.

But Paul didn't get that. He saw the Lexy he needed and no more. Paul could be any one of us, I dare say. How often do we see others as the fillers of our needs rather than as complex beings who live and breathe in our absence rather than sit on a shelf and wait for us to animate them?

Why does Lexy kill herself? It's not hard to figure out. The story is as old as Narcissus and Echo. Nobody knew her, not even the man she loved who was her closest friend. He couldn't see beyond himself. The question is not why but who killed herself.

In the end, Paul discovers the words Lexy left for him in the titles of the books on their shelves. This is a carefully constructed message that is at once clear and cryptic, loving and cruel. It's a hard lesson. In the end, Paul also learns that mutilating Lorelei that she might tell him what he wants to hear rather than the truth is exactly what drove his wife to leap from the window. How desperately we need each other; how little we understand.


  1. Anonymous3:58 AM

    Enjoyed the review.

  2. I am putting that book on my 'to read' list. I can see both Paul and Lexy in myself... The way you finished it, 'how desparately we need eachother; how little we understand,' rings a bell...

  3. Thanks for stopping by. You don't need to be a dog person to enjoy this book, but I think Parkhurst must be one. She writes so lovingly about these animals. I think she's a great stylist, and I hope she'll be around for a long while.


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