Paul Iverson is a tenured linguistics professor married to Lexy Ransome, an artist who specializes in making masks for parties or events such as Marti Gras and weddings. Where he is a quintessential college professor, Lexy is the creative free spirit. Somehow, they click. She loves him for his stable nature and he loves her for the life of surprises she creates for him. One day, the police discover that Lexy has fallen out of the apple tree in their backyard and died. Lorelei, their Rhodesian Ridgeback, is the only witness. In his grief, Paul becomes determined to teach Lorelei to speak so that she can tell him what happened that day. He then decided to make his work with Lorelei part of a greater research project on canine speech. He becomes the laughing stock of his educational community, but he doesn’t change course until he’s forced to come face to face with his past with Lexy and the real reason why he becomes so focused on making Lorelei speak.
I remember at least twice while reading this book while Paul was describing aspects of his research that I said to myself, “This man must be out of his mind!” Paul is such a sympathetic narrator that I was immediately interested in his story and how becoming a widower impacted him. I was so much in his corner and felt for his loneliness that I was buying in to his research, believing it might be possible to get Lorelei to confirm his suspicions. He was a linguist, after all, and I have very little practical experiences with dogs. I had entered into his odd reality without knowing it. Those “this man must be out of his mind” moments were my wakeup call that all was not right with Paul. Seeing that they were not wakeup calls for Paul made me nervous and tempted me (very briefly) to throw in the towel. By the time I realized that Paul was not the reliable man I was led to believe, it was too late. I couldn’t put the book down any more than I could look away. Someone had to be a witness for Lorelei.
Parkhurst tells an interesting story in The Dogs of Babel. Dealing with a partner with mental health issues is not easy. It’s also difficult to understand another person’s problems unless you’ve experienced them. Paul wanted to remember his wife in the best possible light. There were times when he described her outbursts and they didn’t seem at all as devastating as Lexy or Paul did or could easily be explained by lack of sleep or some other minor issue. Paul holds back because he is the perfect co-dependent. He overlooks behavior that should have made him take action, like their trip to New Orleans a few months before she dies. He wants Lorelei to talk because he needs to know what she knows – not because he wants to know the truth, but because he hopes he’s not guilty for what happened.
The Dogs of Babel has got to be the most bizarre novel I’ve read in a very long time. Paul’s obsession led him places I’ve never even imagined in my nightmares. There are some amazingly inhumane things encountered in this novel which bring Paul to his tipping point. Because of this, I would caution readers who upset when animals are treated cruelly and sadistically. I found this novel worth the risk. The uneasy feelings created by the Cerberus Society paved the way for some beautiful, introspective, and intimate prose like the following passage from page 229:
It’s 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.
After finishing this novel, I will never be able to hear a joke about a talking dog, or any other animal for that matter, without thinking about Lorelei. I would also be willing to follow Parkhurst just about anywhere. The Dogs of Babel and Lorelei will stay with me for a long time.
I am so glad that this was the third book I selected for my Dogs Days of Summer week. A special thanks to The Kool-Aid Mom for making the suggestion!
To purchase this novel in print, click here.