Monday, 28 July 2008

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

(Fourth Estate €15.99)

CLEAR away a block of time. Get flu if you have to. Anything to be able to devote total attention to this extraordinary book.
Early in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, the young dog Almondine hears a whispery rasp from the baby sleeping in its mother's arms. She puzzles over the sound, and realises that it is the shriek of a child who can make no sound.
Almondine rises and crosses to where the mother sleeps with the child in her arms. "She became in that moment, and was ever after, a cautious dog," writes David Wroblewski.
Hamlet crossed with The Jungle Book, this is a stupendous work.
The story: the Sawtelle family have been breeding dogs for three generations. They're breeding for power and beauty, but also for heroism, finding dogs that have done extraordinary things and crossing them into their breed, the Sawtelle Dogs.
They don't sell pups. They sell yearling dogs, which have gone through an intensive education, training for creativity and intelligence.
The dream is to breed the 'next dog' - which will replace dogs in the evolutionary chain, as the wolf replaced the extinct Dire Wolf, and the dog replaced the wolf.
Into this dreamland steps an evil man, who loves to do harm just because he can.
Fourteen-year-old Edgar, born mute but super-intelligent, using Sign Language both with his family and friends and with his dogs, faces this well-armed wheedler with the skills that he has: the skill of the wolf for laying an ambush and the skill of an innocent for seeking the truth.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has a ghost made of rain, spooky neighbours, corrupted innocents, ruminations about evolution and selection. And the writing! Writing that makes your teeth water with reality, but is never self-consciously writerly.

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