In The Dogs of Babel, Carolyn Parkhurst tells the story of one man who suddenly faced exactly that level of grief when he returned home one evening to find his backyard swarming with policemen inside the crime scene tape blocking entrance to his property. Lexy, his wife, was dead, the result of a fall from a large tree she had climbed for some unknown reason. That the fall had killed her was beyond question. All that remained to be determined was whether she died by accident or by suicide.
Despite eventual assurances from police investigators that Lexy’s death was the result of some kind of freak accident, Paul felt that there was much more to her death than the police would ever know. He also realized there was a witness to what happened: the couple’s dog, Lorelei, a Rhodesian Ridgeback that Lexy brought to the marriage. Paul, a university linguistics professor, much to the dismay of everyone in his department, decided there was only one thing to do. He had to teach Lorelei to “talk” so that she could tell him what she saw on that terrible afternoon.
In succeeding chapters, Parkhurst alternates between Paul’s almost frantic efforts to communicate with Lorelei in the present and his bittersweet memories of his life with Lexy. Many of Paul’s memories are almost too good to be true and, as he returns to them seeking clues about what might have happened to Lexy, he begins to admit to himself that all was not what it seemed to be.
Despite its title, this is not really a book about a man’s efforts to teach a dog to talk. Rather, it is a book about grief and the craziness that can take over the lives of those suddenly struck by catastrophe beyond their comprehension. Paul does eventually come to realize that his work with Lorelei is doomed to failure, but not before he places his one remaining link with Lexy in mortal danger through his contact with a group of maniacs who are trying to make it physically possible for dogs to talk by subjecting them to painful and deforming amateur surgery.
Frankly, this would have been a better novel if Parkhurst had spent more time with Paul’s efforts to make Lorelei tell him the truth about Lexy’s last day. Instead, she has concocted some kind of romantic mystery in which Paul stumbles around seeking clues that will conclusively prove whether or not his wife killed herself. In the process, both Paul and Lexy are revealed as the flawed and rather unlikable characters that they are and the reader comes to realize that the only truly sympathetic character in the book is a dog. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is doubtful that Parkhurst intended it that way.
But my biggest complaint about The Dogs of Babel is that Carolyn Parkhurst did not play fairly with me as a reader. She withheld a key piece of information from me, one that I will not reveal here because, in a sense it is a “spoiler,” but one of which Paul was aware within days of Lexy’s death. Knowledge of that information would have made it much easier to decide whether or not Lexy was a suicide, something that Parkhurst could not have her readers do if her novel was to reach the climax she intended for it. That approach does not work for me and is a crutch that authors should never be tempted into using because most readers will resent it.
The Dogs of Babel is not necessarily a bad novel, just one that could have been so much more than it is.
Rated at: 3.0