THE DOGS OF BABEL by Carolyn Parkhurst


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A workmanlike, confusedly titled debut about the death of a morbid young wife.

Paul Iverson, a regular-guy linguistics prof at a mid-Atlantic university, receives the news that his wife of several years, Lexy, has fallen to her death from a backyard apple tree. Only her beloved dog Lorelei, a Rhodesian Ridgeback, has witnessed the fall and the last hours of her life, and Paul, grieving and numb, embarks on the professionally estranging work of trying to get Lorelei to tell (literally) what she knows. Oddities emerge—like the fact that Lexy cooked and fed the dog a steak and rearranged the bookshelves before she climbed and fell—suggesting that Lexy, a maker of festive masks from clay, paper, and varnish, had an ulterior motive in climbing the tree. In his disembodied depression, Paul researches possibilities of language acquisition in dogs and even contacts an imprisoned canine mutilator convicted of conducting surgery on dogs to reshape their palates for talking. When Paul attends a meeting of the Cerberus Society, the story turns really bizarre, but only briefly: Parkhurst adheres to the gradual, fairly tedious unraveling of Paul and Lexy’s courtship and married life. The lack of detail about Lexy’s past is covered by her charmingly erratic behavior as a newlywed—the playful thespian masks she fashions for weddings and plays transforming into death masks. But there’s an underlying fissure in this conflicted first novel, the misdirected title a clue: it’s a simple love story without the gumption to go in more unsettling directions à la Patrick McGrath. The highlight isn’t the couple’s first date at Disney World, but the kitschy TV medium Lady Arabelle’s tarot card reading of Lexy’s last night alive. Paul is an emotionally bumbling Everyman no one can dislike, simply desiring a stable home and family, while his wife’s coreless irresolution seems without substance and ultimately merely irritating.

A compelling idea fizzles out into anticlimactic detail.

Pub Date: June 13th, 2003
ISBN: 0-316-16868-8
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2003


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