If you believe that Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, is right in his assertion that American writers "don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature" and that their "ignorance is restraining," do not bother to read David Wroblewski's new American novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Why should you bother to read one of the very best novels of the year? Why should you be drawn into a world that challenges your imagination and intellect? One that conjures Hamlet out of the ether?
The Hamlet connection permeates this novel. There’s a prologue and five parts. There are a mother and father, a son "crippled" by an inability to speak rather than an inability to make a decision. An uncle appears, the father dies under mysterious circumstances, and the boy is haunted by an apparition which says, "Remember me."
In this, far and away the best debut novel of the year, David Wroblewski creates a beautifully imagined world filled with people who grapple with real issues. There is even a dog, Almondine, who shares her thoughts with us. Almondine fills a special role, while the other dogs function as a Greek chorus, giving us another, more dispassionate view of the story. Within the context of this excellent book, this seems to be perfectly normal. This may be fiction, but it has the feel and punch of Life.
Relationships begin to change subtly when Edgar’s uncle Claude (!) arrives, fresh from being "inside" for a spell. There are things about him that Edgar does not understand. Then Gar dies, apparently of a heart attack. Edgar feels responsible, and, unable to tell the operator who or where he is, he is deeply conflicted. Gar’s death sets off a series of events that compound the tragedy.
Do not be put off by the length of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It is a grand saga and very readable. The language is poetic, the descriptions remarkable, never hackneyed. The plot is complicated, but it all fits together quite nicely. Rather than a summer read, it is the perfect book to read while one is curled up before the fireplace, the snow swirling outside, for it should be read in great chunks of time rather than snippets here and there for it deserves the reader’s complete attention.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has garnered well-deserved attention from all the major reviews, including a rave by Stephen King. In September 2008, it was selected for Oprah's Book Club.