The Dogs of Babel

by Carolyn Parkhurst

Hardcover, 2003




Little, Brown (2003)


Paul Iverson's Life Changes in an instant. He returns home one day to find that his wife, Lexy, has died under strange circumstances. The only witness was their dog, Lorelei, whose anguished barking brought help to the scene-but too late. In the days and weeks that follow, Paul begins to notice strange "clues" in their home: books rearranged on their shelves, a mysterious phone call, and other suggestions that nothing about Lexy's last afternoon was quite what it seemed. Reeling from grief, Paul is determined to decipher this evidence and unlock the mystery of her death. But he can't do it alone; he needs Lorelei's help. A linguist by training, Paul embarks on an impossible endeavor: a series of experiments designed to teach Lorelei to communicate what she knows. Perhaps behind her wise and earnest eyes lies the key to what really happened to the woman he loved. As Paul's investigation leads him in unexpected and even perilous directions, he revisits the pivotal moments of his life with Lexy, the brilliant, enigmatic woman whose sparkling passion for life and dark, troubled past he embraced equally. Written with a quiet elegance and a profound knowledge of love's hidden places, The Dogs of Babel is a novel of astonishing and lasting power-a story of marriage, survival, and devotion that lies too deep for words.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member JayFingers
Every once in a while, I come across a novel that causes me to throw some side-eye the author’s way. The most recent novel to do this is The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst.

The Dogs of Babel is the story of linguist Paul Iverson, who calls home one day to find out his wife Lexy is dead. The only witness to her death is their dog, Lorelei, and so Paul sets out to teach the dog to speak so he can find out what really happened.

Now I’d first heard of Babel on a screenwriting website. It seems someone adapted the book and the resulting screenplay was so good, it made that year’s Black List. Reportedly, they were looking for an A-list actor for the role of Paul and blah blah bliggity blue. The way the story had been reported, I thought Babel was going to be a comedy of some sort. Anyway, when I’d found the novel at my new favorite book store Book Off, I decided to pick it up. What the hey, the premise was certainly intriguing. Unfortunately, what made for an intriguing premise turned out to be a patience-testing exercise in banality.

First, the novel actually spends precious little time exploring Paul efforts to teach Lorelei to speak. It is, in fact, a meditation on Paul’s relationship with Lexy. How it came to be, how their love progressed, and how it may (or may not) have impacted the events of Lexy’s last day alive. I admit, the meeting between the two characters was cute – it’s the very definition of “meet cute,” if you ask me – but as we move forward, it becomes abundantly clear that Lexy is, excuse the phrase, fucking insane.

Lexy designs custom masks for a living, and is several years younger than Paul. She’s impulsive, spontaneous, and off her rocker. On their first date, she convinces Paul to drive from wherever they live (Virginia, I think) to Disney World. She also states that they cannot eat dinner because dinner always comes at the end of every date. So each meal consists of appetizers, snacks, and the like. I suppose this was an effort to make Lexy seem quirky; instead, she came off as a loon.

Throughout the novel, Lexy has emotional outbursts, and they grow increasingly violent. In one scene, after Paul offers a slight bit of criticism on her latest work, Lexy takes a knife to the mask, completely destroying it before crumpling into a sobbing ball of delirium.

It was hard for me to truly understand why Paul was so in love with her. Sure, love doesn’t always make sense, especially to those on the outside looking in. But that’s just one of the missteps Parkhurst makes here. She doesn’t make us understand why Paul is so devoted to Lexy. He just is. That’s just not enough.

Oh, yeah, we almost forgot about the dog. There’s a tiny bit of subplot thrown in about a secret society of people dedicated to “canine communication,” an unseemly lot who have no qualms about butchering dogs in an effort to see their goals come to fruition. Interestingly enough, it’s the only part of the novel that generates any excitement. But it also feels somewhat tacked on, a throwaway bit that Parkhurst included because, hey, this is supposed to be a novel about teaching a dog to talk.

The Dogs of Babel disappoints because Paul gets no closer to understanding his wife – her life or her death – come the end of the novel. And as for Lorelei, well, let’s just say she won’t be much assistance in helping Paul figure things out.

No, we’re not given hard and fast answers, and I recognize that’s how it is sometimes. But we’re also left without any resolution, without any closure. It feels like a huge waste of time. And that’s why, in the end, this novel is simply not satisfying. Though it purports to be a tale of communication and understanding, The Dogs of Babel ultimately has nothing at all to say.
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LibraryThing member AdonisGuilfoyle
Mixed thoughts about this novel. I was drawn to buying a copy after reading a very eloquent review, and - I must confess - because of the lovely image on the cover of a dog lying beside its mistress, but I was disappointed by the story itself. The interview with the author in the back of my copy compares 'The Dogs of Babel' with Alice Sebold's 'The Lovely Bones', and I would now have to agree, only for all the wrong reasons. Both books tackle the subject of death from unusual angles, and have become cult successes - yet I wouldn't want to read either one again, even after enough time has passed to forget the plot.

Lexy Ransome is a high maintenance headcase. I won't dress the character up with the adjectives I suspect the author would prefer - creative, spontaneous, sensitive, beautiful. Lexy designs masks for a living, paints secret love notes on walls and hides darker messages in bookshelves, and keeps a journal of all her dreams. She also flips out over the least reason, and thinks about 'that moment' when she might commit suicide. All of these facets of her personality, good and bad, are learned in retrospect from her grieving husband Paul, who is desperate to find out exactly why she climbed to the top of the apple tree in their back yard and either fell or jumped. Lexy's death, when the truth about her 'livewire' behaviour starts to filter into the narrative, is rather a relief, but Paul's reaction did not endear him to me, either. The one living part of Lexy left to him is Lorelei, her eight year old Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, and his betrayal of their pet's trust during his nervous breakdown is almost disgusting to read. I know it's just a book, but I could barely stomach those chapters where he knowingly turns to a cruel, perverted group of men for help in making Lorelei 'talk'. Obviously his monomaniacal obsession with learning how his wife died - although the truth, knowing Lexy's past history, is perfectly obvious, and Paul has all the facts, even if the reader doesn't - drives him to do what he does, but I still have no sympathy for him.

In fact, the only part of the story that stirred me in a relatively positive way - if bringing tears to my eyes is better than wanting to throw the book away - is Lorelei's unconditional love, for both Lexy and Paul. Who wouldn't be affected by the description of a dog's devotion to its owner, whether they deserve such love loyalty or not? The scene where Paul tells Lorelei to 'Go get Lexy', and the poor dog runs around the house looking for her lost owner, is absolutely heartbreaking. Paul's grief, and the stages he goes through, is also raw and honest, but he goes too far.

If you get a chance to borrow this book, from a friend or the library, then definitely read it - the mystery of Lexy's last message to Paul is intriguing, but the (human) characters are not sympathetic and the study of grief is scary-depressing rather than comforting.
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LibraryThing member ljbwell
Not all books are meant for all people. This was a loaner, and really not my style. So, at the risk of being highly critical of a book I'm sure many people quite liked...

While the premise is an interesting one - a widowed man seeks comfort and answers from his dog, a Ridgeback, the only witness to his wife's death - the execution fell flat. I felt like I was reading the book equivalent of a Lifetime Original or Hallmark TV movie. Wife dies. Man haunted by her memory and unanswered questions about her death (she falls from a tree; she's not really a tree climbing type). Man reflects on their marriage in a series of flashbacks seen through his filter. Maybe rosy life not all that rosy. Man, a university linguistics professor, decides next research project will be to attempt to teach their dog to speak, thus helping him find answers he needs to heal and move on. Man goes to the brink, must wake up and find way back. Others worried; others get hurt in the process.

While I could identify with many of the emotions of the book, like the aforementioned Lifetime TV movies, it felt obvious, manipulative and heavy handed. The book club-friendly interview and questions provided at the end just added to the impression that this novel was manufactured for a certain audience. And that audience just isn't me.
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LibraryThing member atia
This was an odd reading experience. The book was recommended to me by a friend, but it had been standing on my shelf for over a year, I think, before I finally picked it up. And I didn't expect to like it; I thought the premise of the story was odd and it'd turn out to be a sappy, too-pathetic look back of a husband who's grieving for his wife. Well, it's a good thing I'm not always right.

The story goes as follows: after the death of his wife, a linguistics professor believes the only way to find out the truth about his wife's death is to teach their dog to talk, because she was with his wife when she died. While doing so, he reminisces about his life with his wife.

Even despite my doubts, I enjoyed this book from the beginning, because it flows. Flowing really is the best expression; it's a pleasure to read, and I felt like I was floating over the pages. The writing felt very soft - this was one of the instances where the writing felt very tangible. (I know this sounds strange, but for me that's the best way to put it.)

And again, despite my doubts there were many passages I underlined and even more where I could've done so. The love Paul Iverson felt for his wife feels very real, as does his grief, and his slow coming to terms with what happened. His project with his dog, bringing with it something really creepy and disturbing, never quite seemed like a fool's errand for me. It was something for him to focus on, although I see why other people - especially scientists - might find it worrying. But it was interesting to read about what he was trying to do (and not).

It's also a very, very female book, at least it felt like that to me. It'd be interesting to see whether other people feel the same, although I can only think of one person who might be interested to read it, and she's a woman. But that kind of thing isn't bad. It had the same feel to it like "The Myth of You & Me", I think; the ease with which I read it definitely reminded me of that book.

So yeah, I really loved it. It's a beautiful story about love, loss and grief. And thus, probably, life.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
A readable, fast-moving whodunit – or whathappened – about a widower, the final intentions of his late wife, and a Rhodesian Ridgeback who may know more than she can say. The plot takes some clever twists, and Parkhurst kept me turning the pages right 'til the end, but its characters' lack of depth and specificity keep this novel from being really successful. The widower in question, a linguist, and his wife live in an anonymous anytown, and she's a textbook example of what the good people over at the Onion's A.V. Club call a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl." An MPDG is an idealized female character whose main function is to revive the spirit of the male protagonist with her energy, love of life, and quirky unconventionality. In other words, an MPDG is a male fantasy for the "Harold and Maude" crowd. Lexy, the narrator's late wife, makes her living designing masks, for Pete's sake, and the scenes from their marriage often come off as more treacly than touching. True, she has her faults, and, near the end of the novel, the narrator admits that what we've seen of her is largely a construct created to help him deal with his own grief, but that doesn't make "The Dogs of Babel" more involving. The narrator himself is too much of an nonperson, the bland counterpoint to Lexy's charismatic loveliness, and while he's a proficient storyteller, his even, measured voice never lets the reader plumb the depth of his despair. I also found his habit of withholding important information about his wife from the reader – presumably keep the reader guessing – to be profoundly annoying. Throughout the novel, Parkhurst touches on important literary subjects, and she writes well in a workshop kind of way. Still, "The Dogs of Babel" fails to convince. I guess I'm just a cat person.… (more)
LibraryThing member LiterateHousewife
Paul Iverson is a tenured linguistics professor married to Lexy Ransome, an artist who specializes in making masks for parties or events such as Marti Gras and weddings. Where he is a quintessential college professor, Lexy is the creative free spirit. Somehow, they click. She loves him for his stable nature and he loves her for the life of surprises she creates for him. One day, the police discover that Lexy has fallen out of the apple tree in their backyard and died. Lorelei, their Rhodesian Ridgeback, is the only witness. In his grief, Paul becomes determined to teach Lorelei to speak so that she can tell him what happened that day. He then decided to make his work with Lorelei part of a greater research project on canine speech. He becomes the laughing stock of his educational community, but he doesn’t change course until he’s forced to come face to face with his past with Lexy and the real reason why he becomes so focused on making Lorelei speak.

I remember at least twice while reading this book while Paul was describing aspects of his research that I said to myself, “This man must be out of his mind!” Paul is such a sympathetic narrator that I was immediately interested in his story and how becoming a widower impacted him. I was so much in his corner and felt for his loneliness that I was buying in to his research, believing it might be possible to get Lorelei to confirm his suspicions. He was a linguist, after all, and I have very little practical experiences with dogs. I had entered into his odd reality without knowing it. Those “this man must be out of his mind” moments were my wakeup call that all was not right with Paul. Seeing that they were not wakeup calls for Paul made me nervous and tempted me (very briefly) to throw in the towel. By the time I realized that Paul was not the reliable man I was led to believe, it was too late. I couldn’t put the book down any more than I could look away. Someone had to be a witness for Lorelei.

Parkhurst tells an interesting story in The Dogs of Babel. Dealing with a partner with mental health issues is not easy. It’s also difficult to understand another person’s problems unless you’ve experienced them. Paul wanted to remember his wife in the best possible light. There were times when he described her outbursts and they didn’t seem at all as devastating as Lexy or Paul did or could easily be explained by lack of sleep or some other minor issue. Paul holds back because he is the perfect co-dependent. He overlooks behavior that should have made him take action, like their trip to New Orleans a few months before she dies. He wants Lorelei to talk because he needs to know what she knows – not because he wants to know the truth, but because he hopes he’s not guilty for what happened.

The Dogs of Babel has got to be the most bizarre novel I’ve read in a very long time. Paul's obsession led him places I've never even imagined in my nightmares. There are some amazingly inhumane things encountered in this novel which bring Paul to his tipping point. Because of this, I would caution readers who upset when animals are treated cruelly and sadistically. I found this novel worth the risk. The uneasy feelings created by the Cerberus Society paved the way for some beautiful, introspective, and intimate prose like the following passage from page 229:

It's not the content of our dreams that gives our second heart its dark color; it's the thoughts that go through our heads in those wakeful moments when sleep won't come. And those are the things we never tell anyone at all.

After finishing this novel, I will never be able to hear a joke about a talking dog, or any other animal for that matter, without thinking about Lorelei. I would also be willing to follow Parkhurst just about anywhere. The Dogs of Babel and Lorelei will stay with me for a long time.
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LibraryThing member seka760
One of the contemporary titles I call one of my favorites, this book is very sad and often stirs up the question, why? Lexy mysteriously dies and the only one who witnesses her death is the dog Lorelei. Lexy's husband Paul is desperate to know how it happened, and so tries to teach Lorelei to speak so that she may tell him what she witnessed. Moving between past events and current situations, this book reveals what may have happened - but it something that Paul could never have dreamed of?… (more)
LibraryThing member jennifour
What a moving novel this was. It was easy to connect to the characters and imgagine what was going on.
LibraryThing member rutibegga
I didn't expect to enjoy this book; I thought it was going to be complete fluff. It turned out to be a really good read. I read it in a few hours while recovering from oral surgery. A page-turner, for sure.
LibraryThing member CalicoGirl
First Sentence:Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.
Paul Iverson's wife dies under mysterious circumstances. The police rule it an accident. Paul isn't convinced. He begins to find 'clues' around the house which lead him to believe Lexy may have taken her own life. The only witness to the day's events is Lorelei, the family dog. Paul, a linguist, embarks on a series of experiments designed to teach Lorelei to communicate what she knows. As Paul recalls the past, layers of Lexy's personality are revealed. His obsession leads him and Lorelei into unexpected and and even dangerous situations.
That's the plot line. Now, let me tell you how this book feels. Paul learns through the clues left behind and by recounting his and Lexy's history for the reader, how very much we miss walking through life. Like the message written in glossy paint, readable only at certain hours of the morning as the sun washes through the kitchen window, some communications are painfully subtle. Paul may never have known the true person Lexy was. Perhaps he only glimpsed her. His dependence on Lorelei is heartbreaking. At the conclusion of the story, we finally understand Lorelei's pain. She and Paul are bound by this shared guilt of missing what Lexy was truly about.
Those of us how love and share our lives with animals tend to think we have a special communication with them. We have signals and words of which we have a shared understanding. For animal lovers, this book will be a difficult read at times, but it is worth the struggle.
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LibraryThing member devilwrites
A beautiful tale of a man who's lost his wife and is dealing with his grief and the mystery surround her death. His relationship with the dog, as well as the dog's connection to the wife, is beyond touching, and it's one of the few books I've read that utilizes both dreams and flashbacks very, very well. And kudos for a kick-ass title that carries a great double meaning.… (more)
LibraryThing member punxsygal
This book reminded me of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime with its stream of conciousness format. While the husband's idea of trying to teach the dog, Loreli, to talk is farfetched, we all do strange things when hit with a life alternating situation such as the loss of a loved one.
LibraryThing member nicoyu
A book of relationships and love. It's not really about 'how a guy finally teaches a dog to talk', but 'how a guy and a dog break the boundary of language and species, and love each other'.
Actually, it applies to everyone -- although we interact with 'human', those who can speak, but it's doubtful that whether we really understand each other.… (more)
LibraryThing member Djupstrom a good way. Completely original and believable. A love story, a mystery, a look into the underworld of the city. Brilliant book!
LibraryThing member nefernika
I enjoyed the perspective and the set-up, and Lorelei was a great character, but once the book descended into dog vocal chord surgery attempts, it got kind of goofy. Enjoyable if you could ignore the preposterous "science," though.
LibraryThing member bibliophile26
Man loses wife. Only witness to wife’s death is his dog. Man quits his job and tries to teach his dog to talk so that she can “tell” him what happened to wife. Weird premise – yes. Touching book about a couple’s relationship and man’s grief – makes it worth reading despite the weird premise.
LibraryThing member bobbieharv
Begins as an engaging story about a guy whose dog was the only witness to his wife's death, so he tries to teach the dog to talk. Interesting historical riffs on that, but it degenerated into gruesome surgical operations and a deranged cult.
LibraryThing member circlesreads
A completely unique and beautifully written book. I couldn’t put it down.
LibraryThing member jmyers24
"The Dogs of Babel" is a very unique and intimate look at loving someone with a mental illness as well as the grief and healing process. The symbolism of dreams and masks permeates the novel creating layers of meaning. As the widow tries to unravel the mystery of his wife's final hours he also unravels more of the mystery of himself.… (more)
LibraryThing member ShellyS
The moving story about a professor of linguistics whose wife has died in a tragic accident, having fallen from a tree. The only witness was their dog, Lorelei, and Paul, convinced that Lorelei can tell him what happened that day, including why his wife, Lexy, was in that tree in their yard, becomes determined to teach Lorelei to talk.

The story is told in two time periods. In the past, is Paul and Lexy’s love story; in the present, is Paul’s struggles to find, then come to terms with his loss and the truths he has difficulty facing, including his irrational actions that put Lorelei at risk.

By the end, I wasn’t surprised by the things Paul learns, about Lexy and himself and their relationship, but surprises aren’t what this book is about. At its heart, it’s the story of love and how it can blind you to a person’s flaws and how some things are beyond your control and other things are within your control and learning the difference. It’s about an amazing love that wasn’t quite strong enough and about healing. Parkhurst’s prose is compelling and deeply felt. I look forward to reading more by her.
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LibraryThing member Brianna_H
This is one of my favorite books. The Dogs of Babel is a page-turning novel full of suspense but it is also a love story of sorts. In a word: captivating.

After Paul's wife, Lexy, falls to her death from a tree in their yard, Paul becomes obsessed with trying to find out why Lexy was in that tree and whether or not he had the perfect marriage he thought he did. Paul feels that the only living being who has the answer to all of his questions is their dog, Lorelei. Paul's emotional journey with Lorelei in trying to solve his wife's death is haunting, suspenseful and engaging.… (more)
LibraryThing member TanyaTomato
I liked this story of a man who loses his wife and wants to know what caused her death. As he is grieving you hear their story and his unraveling of a mystery that didn't at first seem to be there.
LibraryThing member fingerpost
As Dogs of Babel opens, Paul Iverson comes home to find police in and around his house and his wife dead in the back yard, having either fallen or jumped from an giant apple tree. The only witness to the event was the family dog, Lorelei. Paul, a linguist by profession, decides to teach Lorelei to talk, so she can tell him what happened on the day of his wife's death. The book is beautifully written and propels the reader along nicely. The only drawback is that at the end of the book, the entire element of teaching the dog to speak seems superflous... nothing more than an interesting and curious red herring.… (more)
LibraryThing member chersbookitlist
Overall, a great debut novel by this author. It's an imaginative and unusual story about a dog who witnesses his owner's death. The narrator becomes intrigued by the possibility of getting his dog to talk so he can convey what happened. There is a very poignant evocation of the narrator's relationship with his deceased wife and his evolving grief. You travel with him through the mysterious circumstances of her death and come to know more about his wife's deep pain. I thought the author treated the theme of the talking dog society a bit superficially though.… (more)
LibraryThing member skinglist
Pleasantly surprised by this book, though I found it to be a slow start. I felt for Paul, I too wanted to know what had happened to Lexy. Well written, flows at a good pace once you're into it.


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