Haunting twist on old saga

By Nicky Pellegrino

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By David Wroblewski
HarperCollins, $29.99

The most succinct way to describe this book is like A Thousand Acres with ghosts and dogs.

Jane Smiley's Pulitzer 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 write and it has a 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, helping with training them, 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 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 and Wroblewski has a curious way of writing about significant events in an almost indirect way, perhaps using the mystique to prepare the reader for the appearance of Edgar's father in phantom form.

This is the kind of family saga that 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 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.

- Herald on Sunday

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