Friday, April 24, 2009

Edgar Sawtelle and inevitability

After encountering rapturous blog reviews about David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, I was looking forward to experiencing the story for myself.

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.

5 comments:

Charley said...

The length of this book intimidates me, but perhaps I'll get around to it one of these days.

Linda Jacobs said...

Oh, I so agree with you about this book. I loved it! And, like you, I ddidn't see the tragedy coming, either! And I was actually teaching Hamlet while reading the novel! Duh!

But, ah, the writing is just so beautiful and, like you say, poetic!

I was talking with a friend about it and she hadn't even realized the Shakespeare connection so I didn't feel so bad!

Paula Weston said...

Ha, Linda, that's a classic! Glad I'm not the only one.

Charley - I think you'll enjoy this one once you tackle it, given the number of books you and I both seem to like.

Diane said...

I loved this book, but the reviews seem to be all over the map on this one. Great review.

Placey said...

I found this book a really strange one.
I really enjoyed the characters - human and canine - and watching their relationships and journeys unfold. One of my favourite characters is the man who befriends Edgar and his runaway dogs.
Having read the book after seeing your blog, I was prepared for a tragic ending. However, I don't think that this knowledge detracted at all from my enjoyment of the tale, and I didn't see it as a story of hopelessness but, rather, one of sacrifice.
I did have some trouble midway through the book in keeping motivated: I found that I couldn't get into the finer details of the dog breeding and training process, which Wroblewski seems to have taken a great interest in - I felt that the level of detail slowed the pace of the book down, without contributing enough to the story.
This aside, the book is filled with memorable characters, a sweeping setting, and some other-wordly magic - plenty to love!