- What: The Dogs of Babel
- Who: Carolyn Parkhurst
- Pages: 261, soft cover
- Genres: Contemporary fiction and mystery
- Published: 2003
- The lit: of 5 flames
Have you ever wished you could talk to your pet? I mean, you spend so much time with the little fur balls, why wouldn’t you? They can sense when you’re sad, and they comfort you with their cuddles and love. They greet you when you come home and wag their tails to communicate their excitement. It seems entirely unfair that they can’t whisper they love you and that everything’s going to be OK and that we can’t reciprocate how much they mean to us too.
Speaking with our pets is the main conduit through which author Carolyn Parkhurst tells a heartbreaking story in The Dogs of Babel. In the beginning, you think it’s just about a man trying to communicate with his dog. It seems a little crazy, but is it really the worst idea? Soon a story about grief, loneliness, mental health, and internal struggle unfolds. Just like our pets, sometimes words evade us, and it’s impossible to convey how we really feel.
“The conclusion I have reached is that, above all, dogs are witnesses. They are allowed access to our most private moments. They are there when we think we are alone.” — The Dogs of Babel
Paul Iverson’s life takes a tragic 180º when he receives a call at work that his wife, Lexy, has had an accident at home. When he arrives at their house, the police tell him that she fell from a tree outside and has died.
“‘I have to ask — did your wife seem at all depressed lately?’ asked the detective. ‘Did she ever mention suicide, even in a casual way.'”
At the time, Paul shook his head — what a ridiculous notion — and the police ruled out suicide. But a few days after the funeral and when Paul can think a little clearer, he notices some clues: books rearranged on the bookshelf and a steak cooked for their Rhodesian Ridgeback, Lorelei. Is this evidence to how Lexy died?
Paul realizes Lorelei is the only witness on that unfateful day when Lexy fell from the tree. He embarks on an ambitious journey to make Lorelei talk, to somehow communicate how his wife died. As he starts his research and experiments, he recalls his life with Lexy — from their first date at Disney World to their very last fight — and he recollects her happiest, saddest, and most confusing moments in between. Desperate for answers, he’ll do whatever it takes to find where their lives went wrong and how Lexy left this world.
I surprised myself a bit by liking this book and by liking it as much as I did. Because of a challenge from my boyfriend, I had no idea what this book was about before I started. Once Paul tried making Lorelei talk, I became skeptical. Teaching a dog to communicate is a weird concept, right?
But would it seem so weird if you were reeling from grief? If your best friend and lover had suddenly left this world, wouldn’t you do anything to get him or her back and to figure out the “why”? And that’s where the first big moral of the story comes into play.
“Because for most of us, suicide is a moment we’ll never choose. It’s only for people like Lexy, who know they might choose eventually, who believe they have a choice to make.” — The Dogs of Babel
Grief is such an immense and painful emotion that it makes us do things we could have never imagined, things that seem unconventional. Grief becomes a main character in this novel, and it says something much more powerful than the surface story of a man and a dog speaking. And that’s why I enjoyed this book even if it altered my mood (it really did bring me down). It utilizes a completely unorthodox plot to illustrate an even greater theme.
In the process, it highlights the internal struggle humans can face and how mental health is not an issue we should take lightly. Parkhurst utilizes symbolism numerous times throughout her book to capture this too. For example, Lexy makes artful masks for a living, signifying how she continually hides behind happy emotions. And then there’s the inability for their dog, Lorelei, to communicate with Paul, to be understood, and vice versa. Lexy clearly suffered from the same inability — even though she and her husband had a seemingly strong, happy, and loving relationship.
“This is a book that wears its symbolism on its sleeve, at great risk but with startling effectiveness,” wrote Janet Maslin in her 2003 New York Times review.
The novel does take an unexpected and disconnected turn about three-fourths through. While, again, this turn symbolizes the desperation that breeds from grief, it detracts from the main story. I wish this small plot twist had been left out, but that’s because, at this point, I cared more about Lexy and Paul’s life together and piecing together the puzzle of her death than Paul’s present-day struggle with Lorelei. The retrospect provides more intrigue.
Just like Paul, I felt great relief when the mystery was finally solved.
It’s a sad ending, but any other conclusion would have hurt the overall story. Parkhurst is a superb storyteller and has a knack for the artful and eccentricity. Her insightful novel says way more about humans and our inability to communicate than it does about dogs’ struggle to openly speak. The bow wows of the world don’t need words; they have the body language thing down pat.
“It is not the content of our dreams that gives our second heart its dark color: It’s the thoughts that go through our heads in those wakeful moments when sleep won’t come. And those are the things we never tell anyone at all.” — The Dogs of Babel