Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
By David Wroblewski
HarperCollins, $29.99

Review by Nicky Pellegrino.

The most succinct way I can think of to describe this book is like A Thousand
Acres with ghosts and dogs. Jane Smiley’s Pulitizer Prize winning novel was a searing portrait of rural American life with fractured families and sinister things in hidden glass jars. David Wroblewski’s dramatic debut novel has all of that plus layers of spooky weirdness.

It took the author more than a decade to complete the book and it has a slowly drawn out, languorous air about it, with lyrical descriptions of landscapes and lots of painstaking detail. Nevertheless there’s something about this story that keeps you turning the pages – all 562 of them – to find out how things end for Edgar Sawtelle.

The eponymous hero is a mute (but not deaf) boy born into a family that has established a breed of companion dogs famous for their intelligence. Edgar is raised surrounded by these animals, training them to obey hand signals and helping his parents with the daily routines of feeding, cleaning and choosing dogs for breeding. The family has its share of sadness and Edgar’s father has a fraught relationship with his brother Claude but life is mostly good. Then tragedy strikes, Edgar’s father dies in mysterious circumstances and, half-crazed with grief, his mother takes up with the charming but untrustworthy Claude.

There is a sense of doom hanging over every page of this book and Wroblewski has a curious way of writing about significant events in an almost indirect way, perhaps using this technique of mystique to prepare the reader for the appearance of Edgar’s father in phantom form.
This is the kind of family saga that’s been written for centuries - it has obvious parallels with Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Greek mythology but Wroblewski gives an age-old tale a series of fresh twists. For me the most compelling part of the long novel is when the silent boy runs away with three of his dogs; that’s when the writing is at its most poetic and the relationship between human and animal most touching.
In the US the book is a best-seller, labelled by some as “a great American novel” and Colorado-based Wroblewski, a former software designer, is already at work on his next one. I can imagine it will be just as difficult for him to let go of the complex and haunting character of Edgar Sawtelle as it’s going to be for so many of his readers.

NZ author and books editor Nicky Pellegrino writing in the Herald on Sunday, 19 October.
Thanks to Nicky for permission to post her review to my blog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to thank you Bookman for occasionally getting reviews from the Herald on Sunday and the NZ Herald as we no longer get the Herald in the South Island, unless you subscribe to it. I always used to enjoy the book reviews in both these weekend papers so I am grateful to you for any you subsequently run.