David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a moving, beautifully written, emotionally taxing, very well-told novel. It’s the kind of book that’s difficult, not because of the way it’s written, but because of the direction you know the story is headed in — you get caught up in the novel’s world and want to stay in it, and yet you know things are going to go bad at some point and you dread the thought.
The novel is a retelling of Hamlet, a fact that shapes your experience of it one way or another. If you are familiar with the play, then you have the pleasure of trying to figure out which character in the novel corresponds to which character in the play, and which plot event is a version of the play’s events. The novel doesn’t follow Hamlet exactly, but it’s close enough that there are plenty of convergences to pick up on. You also have a general sense of the direction the plot will take and it’s satisfying to watch exactly how Wroblewski works everything out.
The risk of retelling a well-known story is that the reader might lose a sense of urgency or feel that what happens is too expected and familiar, and I did feel a laxness now and then when the novel followed the play particularly closely. But the method offers plenty of other pleasures (although perhaps “pleasure” isn’t quite the right word, since we’re talking about a tragedy here), not least the experience of hoping against hope that things will turn out differently than you are afraid they will.
If the reader isn’t familiar with Hamlet, there is another possible risk, which is that some of the plot events may seem a little strange and out of place. I read this book for a book group (which hasn’t yet met) and another member who hadn’t realized that it’s a version of Hamlet was a little startled to find that a ghost makes an appearance in a novel that is otherwise very down-to-earth and realistic. But this friend said it was only a small jarring moment in what was otherwise a good experience.
If you do get the Hamlet reference, there is the intellectual pleasure of seeing just how Wroblewski reshapes a story originally set in a very different time and place. He does this wonderfully well; with the possible exception of ghosts, there is no awkwardness in having a Hamlet who lives on a farm in Wisconsin in the 20th century and grows up raising dogs. Wroblewski handles the relationships among the Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude characters marvelously well, and his take on Ophelia is astonishing.
But to set the Hamlet issue aside, the world of the novel is remarkably well-realized and his main character an appealing one. Edgar’s life is simple — he attends school but spends most of his time working with the dogs his family is known for, the Sawtelle dogs, distinguished by their unusually strong ability to communicate with humans. He and his mother and father raise and train the dogs, pouring their energy into them so that they are among the best-trained dogs available.
Edgar’s life is also shaped by the fact that he was born unable to speak, although he can hear normally. This is a mystery to the doctors, who conducted test and after test on him but could never figure out the problem. Something about this inability to speak gives him an unusually close rapport with the dogs, so close that his ability to train them sometimes suffers. His companion, Almondine, is always by his side; she is trained to keep an eye on him and to alert the others if he is in trouble. Her devotion to him — and his to her — is almost too moving to bear.
The novel’s point of view is most often focused on Edgar, with some chapters that shift to other characters and now and then even to Almondine, and Wroblewski often tells us what Edgar is thinking and feeling, but he rarely tells us what Edgar thinks of his inability to speak. This fact is simply a given, something Edgar seems to accept. (The one exception to this general rule is horrifying, however — all the more horrifying because of this earlier reticence.) We also don’t learn much about Edgar’s life off the farm. We know he attends school, but what his experience is like there we have no idea, and we never hear of any friends or outside interests or future plans. For such a long novel, it’s remarkably focused on just a few people in a constrained setting. This narrowness of focus intensifies the sense of doom that slowly settles over everybody; if things are going to go wrong, they are going to go spectacularly wrong and it will be a horrifying sight. The farm is all that Edgar knows — it’s his whole world, and this gives him a strength and a vulnerability that are wrenching to behold.
This is Wroblewski’s first novel, and I’m very curious to see what he will publish next; this is a wonderful debut from a writer I hope gives us many more books in the future.
(If you decide to read the hard cover version of this book, I’d suggest not reading the front flap, as it gives away way too much of the plot. After all I’ve said about Hamlet, you might think I’ve given away too much too, but the description on the front flap gives many more details than I have here, and I wish I hadn’t known them when I was reading.)