But, despite the fact I knew there were parallels with Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it didn’t dawn on me this would be a tragedy until I was about 30 pages from the end.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is set in rural Wisconsin in the first half of the 20th century, on a farm where the Sawtelle family raise a fictional breed of dog, bred for its qualities as a companion, rather than physical traits.
Edgar is a normal boy except for the inexplicable fact he’s never been able to make a sound. His idyllic life is shattered when his father, Gar, mysteriously dies, and then appears to him as a ghost one rainy night - not long after Edgar's uncle moves into the farm to take Gar's place in more ways than one.
The ghostly visit sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Edgar running away with three of the dogs he's been raising and training – and leaving behind faithful Almondine, the aging dog who knows and loves him best.
So, as I was caught up in the sadness of Edgar's separation from Almondine and mesmerised by his growing understanding of the world and his place in it, I wasn’t paying attention to the bigger picture.
Yes, I could feel the tension building. Yes, I knew violence was coming. And still it took me by surprise. But in hindsight, when I looked back at the story in its entirety, it’s obvious the ending (so poignant and perfect in its context) was inevitable.
And somehow, that makes it easier to bear. Once certain events were set in motion, there was nothing Edgar could have done to change the outcome (unless, of course, Wroblewski wanted to write a very different novel).
Is that what it’s like in life? If we know we could have changed something, and didn’t, outcomes are harder to bear. But if there's no chance of influencing an outcome –averting tragedy – can we somehow come to terms with it a little easier? Or is that too fatalistic a view on life?
But, I digress.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a beautifully written novel, at times tender, funny, suspenseful and heartbreaking.
Most of the narrative is told from Edgar’s viewpoint. Some of it from characters we barely know. Occasionally we even hear Almondine’s voice.
The plot is intricate, and builds in pace towards the end, but Wroblewski is just as interested in the characters and their relationships and observations, and some of his prose is pure poetry.
Despite being a tragedy in the literary sense, this is not a depressing book – even if the hope offered at the end comes from an unexpected source.