Teaching Your Dog to Speak

“The Dogs of Babel” by Carolyn Parkhurst
I usually steer clear of best selling books, although I have read and much liked “Cold Mountain” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring”, both best-sellers of their time. Also I’m a huge admirer of Anne Tyler and read all her books, even though her novels sell like hot cakes.
“The Dogs of Babel” received very positive reviews and was a best-seller. The book has been out for six years, but in the next few months there will be renewed interest in the book, because it is being made into a major movie.
The story is about a married couple, Paul and Lexy, and their dog Lorelei. Since Lexy dies in the first sentence of the book, much of the book is told in flashbacks. Only Lorelei witnessed the death of Lexy, and an early plot line is Paul’s efforts to teach the dog Lorelei to speak, so Paul can figure out what happened to Lexy.
One of the many nice things about this book is the originality of its plot. I’ve never encountered any story remotely similar to this story. Many of us can identify with the idea of pets being always around, seeing everything that goes on, but not being able to talk about it in any way.
The story is told in the first person in the voice of the husband, Paul. It is always a difficult task for a novelist to create a believable narrator of the opposite sex, and Parkhurst pulls it off quite well. I did feel that Paul was perhaps a little too idealized, but for the most part believable.
One of the real strengths of Carolyn Parkhurst as a novelist is that she tells the story simply and directly, and her style does not get in the way of the speeding plot. This is quite an accomplishment for a first-time novelist. I can easily see why this novel was selected for a movie treatment, because the plot is striking and the scenes vivid. It is also a very emotional story. And who can resist a lovable dog?
For a reader like me who reads literature for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the book was perhaps a bit too simplistic, but overall I enjoyed it very much and will never forget the plot.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Another book with a novel and unusual plot. Fortunately I do not get out to see many films, but I shall take care not to pre-empt the book.

    Interesting that you comment that the female author has created a believable male narrator. I think that Marilynne Robinson does this well in Gilead, but as a woman reader am perhaps not best placed to judge. I can not think of an example of a man writing as a female narrator for the entire duration of a novel, but there must be some…

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    • Sarah, you raise a really interesting question. There was a novel a few years ago called “Smilla’s Sense of Snow” by Peter Hoeg that I think was told from Smilla’s point of view if not exactly her as the narrator.

      Can anyone out there name a novel written by a male with a female narrator?

      A lot of novels are written with a third person or omniscient narrator, so they wouldn’t count. I don’t remember Gilead so well, but recently listened to an audio CD version of “Home”. The narrator or at least the point of view in “Home” was the daughter At first I wasn’t too excited about “Home”, but as it progressed I was won over.

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  2. Posted by Kelly S on November 5, 2009 at 4:50 AM

    “Memoirs of a Geisha” by Arthur Golden? I found this list of books written by a male author with a female protagonist: http://www.webrary.org/RS/flbklists/Authors.html … But I don’t know which ones are written in first person.

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  3. Posted by Kelly S on November 5, 2009 at 3:20 PM

    Hmm, that is odd…

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  4. The books on Kelly’s list which I recognised were not first person, though Flaubert comes close, in Madame Bovary. (Third person, but seemingly told from Emma’s point of view, and very well done.) I thought of Wuthering Heights, but that’s an odd one. The top level narrator is male, but he relates a story told by a woman… etc.

    Then I thought of Ian Banks. He has done it on more than one occasion, but I would have to reluctantly suggest that his women are quite androgynous.

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    • I have never read Iain Banks – What kind of books does he write?

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      • Until recently Banks wrote in two personas; Iain M. Banks was sci-fi, Iain Banks was the literary offerings. In his latest book he seeks to undo this divide.

        I find his pure sci-fi hard to get into, but the ones I have read were original, with pleasing attention to detail.

        Some of the literary stuff is enjoyable; The Wasp Factory has overtones of gothic horror and I think it is a great read. Unfortunately there is a tendency to unsubtle politicking which detracts from certain of his later work.

        I suspect that your requirements for a good read may be more rigourous than my own. I hesitate to recommend him, because, unless you are specifically a fan of sci-fi, I am not convinced that you would find his books sufficently rewarding.

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        • Interesting, same name except with and without a middle initial. I like ‘unsubtle politicking’ as long as I agree with it; otherwise I hate it.

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  5. That would be Iain Banks, of course…

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  6. I read this book last year and loved it — a really interesting idea for a novel!

    As per Iain Banks, he’s an old favourite. Read all his stuff before I started blogging, hence no reviews. They’re hugely enjoyable, slightly off-the-wall stories.

    If you only read one Banks book, you MUST read The Wasp Factory, which is just brilliant, very dark and twisted.

    I also really loved the one that takes the mickey out of religion, but I cant remember it’s name (Whit?) and the one called Complicity, about a journalist investigating a murder, is an old favourite.

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  7. Hi Kimbofo, good to hear from you. I’ll put Iain Banks on my TBR list. But maybe I won’t put Iain M. Banks on my list.

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