Wednesday, 6 May 2009

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

I have just read The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski.
Now, I read a lot of books and I’ve never read read anything like this. I was captivated almost from the first page and the presence of Edgar, the central character, kept me engrossed all the way through.

Unique, then. But it’s a very hard book to categorise. Or even describe. At one level it’s a book about a boy and his dogs. The Sawtelles breed and train (boy do they train!) their very own breed of dog. I am a resolutely cat person and even I wanted a dog of my own by the end of the book.

At another level it’s a psychological thriller but to try and categorise it in that way would do the book a great disservice.

At yet another level it’s a coming of age novel. Or a weird road-trip with dogs...

But none of these begin to sum up The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.

I think, possibly, it’s a book whose main preoccupation is communication. Edgar is mute - not deaf, just mute. For some reason he simply cannot speak or make any vocal noise. So he signs, even to his dogs. But his silence seems to be more deep-rooted than a simple anatomical difficulty with voice production – his mother describes him as a silent, inward person and the reader gets the impression that his most effective communication is all non-verbal.

The book is also very concerned with the way in which people communicate the things they know. And how they know what they know. Edgar has an almost telepathic kind of information-exchange with his dog, Almondine (who gets her moment as a viewpoint character) and both he and his mother effect a kind of non-verbal communication with their dogs which seems not simply out of the ordinary but almost supernatural.

And this sense of the supernatural keeps cropping up. There is communication from beyond the grave and psychic communication from a lesser, but very vividly realised character. In a book that works hard to present us with the nuts and bolts of the dog-trainer’s art, which goes into a great deal of historical detail about the development of the Sawtelle’s method, which presents a very unforgiving and unromantic view of a small rural community, this kind of excursion into the realms of the unknowable shouldn’t work. But it does. And that makes The Story of Edgar Sawtelle a strange, memorable and unusual book.

But, oddly, I think the thing that stays with me is the American-ness of the book. There is a certain kind of North American novel that conveys, in its language, its symbolism and its characters the vast emptiness of the continent, the lonely, self-sufficient independence of rural life, the ultimate significance of the questions about life that are inspired by vast prairies and endless skies. It’s difficult to be bogged down in trivia when your insignificance in the universe is demonstrated to you every night by the very visible presence of a billion stars.

In many ways, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle shouldn’t work.
But work it does. I loved it.

1 comment:

Tim Stretton said...

Never heard of this, Alis, but it sounds intriguing - and you've never let me down on a recommendation yet...