Sunday, February 14, 2010

A book review

If you are a dog person, you like ghost stories, thrillers and the occult (to some extent), if you are happy to suspend your disbelief and not ask too many "but whyyy???" questions, "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle", by David Wroblewski, is going to make you a happy person. Oh, and you also need to like reading really fat books - the edition I read ran to over 550 pages, and the print was really, really tiny!

So anyway, I'm the sort of person described above - all I ask for is a really good read, and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle was a good read, for the most part. I took the book from my library because it was satisfyingly fat, the print wasn't large and a random peek into it gave me the idea that it would be interesting. Other than that, I'd never heard of the book or the author, and had no idea of the storyline.

The story is set in some part of Wisconsin, timeline 1970s (ish). Not that I could see how it mattered because I didn't get an idea of any particular time in the story... I just got caught up in the narrative, and it could have been anywhere, anytime. On the other hand, I didn't grow up in the backwoods of Wisconsin in the '70s, so what do I know.

Edgar Sawtelle is a mute boy born to dog-breeding and training parents (Gar and Trudy) who live on a farm. Edgar might be mute, but he's very intelligent and picks up sign language at the age of 3 or 4. He uses sign language to communicate not only with humans but has even evolved it to communicate with and train his dogs. "Sawtelle" dogs are distinctive in their intelligence and ability, and are the finest in the country. Almondine is Edgar's "special" dog, almost like a nanny, who looks out for him - like a combination of Nana and Lassie.

All is well until Edgar's uncle Claude, his father's younger brother, comes to live at the farm. The brothers arent as brotherly as they could be - Gar is resentful of Claude (I didnt really understand why) and Claude is deeply envious of Gar, and constantly needling him about the past. The problem is that while Gar is the quiet, scholarly type totally engrossed in keeping records of generations of dogs that he has bred and trained, Claude is a manipulative, sly sociopath. Edgar doesn't like Claude from the start, but doesn't have a reason for it other than portentous dreams.

One fine day Edgar finds Gar in the barn, dying, and is devastated when he cannot summon help for him, being mute. Gar's mysterious death affects the boy and his mother deeply. They try to help each other out of their grief and try desperately to keep the farm going, but it's extremely hard work for a woman and a boy. And then Trudy falls seriously ill with pneumonia, so Claude steps in to help on the farm and with training the dogs. Edgar doesn't like this, but he accepts that they need his help. His suspicion that Claude killed his father are confirmed when Gar's "ghost" indicates as much to him during a storm. (Shades of Hamlet very much evident in the storyline.)

When Claude and Trudy get together, Edgar tries his best to convince his mother that Gar was murdered by Claude who injected him with a mysterious poison. He tries to set a trap for Claude, but it is the old family friend and veterinarian, Dr Papineau, who dies instead.

Edgar flees with three of his dogs, leaving behind Almondine, with whom he is furious (because he found her lying contentedly at Claude's feet and considered that a betrayal of him). He meets a man called Henry who helps him, and eventually leaves two of his dogs with the man (actually, the dogs choose to stay with Henry) before returning to the farm to confront his uncle.

I won't reveal the ending, in case someone wants to read this book after reading my review, but I will say that it doesn't end happily. That much should have been obvious from the trend of the story, but I still didnt like how the book ended. It was a bit disappointing (and depressing), not to mention somewhat hurried. Really, it all seemed a little too Gothic, more worthy of a Stephen King novel than a story about a boy and his many dogs and the bond of loyalty, understanding and protectiveness that can prevail between humans and canines.

Still, like I said, a cracking good read. And if there is a somewhat more about selective dog breeding than the average reader would care to know about, if there are a few unexplained mysterious happenings in the story and the ending is not neatly structured, those have to be accepted as flaws just as the many beautiful passages in the book are accepted as good writing.


Kamini said...

Shades of Hamlet, indeed!
I'd not heard of the author or the book before this, but thanks to your review, this book is now on my to-read list. Thanks, Shyam.

Lekhni said...

I think you are being overly generous to the author. Going by your review, it does sounds like there are too many loose ends and unexplained bits in the story. Or maybe I am being too harsh.

Teesu (very very Indian, very very good) said...

No, sounds too creepy for me, but enjoyed your post!