Stephen King wrote of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany that it’s “extraordinary, so original and so enriching… Readers will come to the end feeling sorry to leave [Irving’s] richly textured and carefully wrought world.” (Washington Post). In many ways he’s right.
Irving’s story is narrated by John Wheelwright, a former citizen of New Hampshire who is now living in Toronto as a Canadian citizen. Two timeframes are interwoven in the story; John Wheelwright’s present setting in 1987, Toronto and his childhood and come to adulthood from the early 1950s to 1970s.
The novel follows Wheelwright’s friendship with Owen Meany who’s a small boy with a high-pitched voice. Owen Meany hitting a foul ball accidently kills his best friend’s mother; despite this, they remain friends until Owen’s death. Throughout the years, Owen shows he believes an instrument of God and events happen that make John realize that maybe Owen’s life was indeed extraordinary.
The world Irving built is indeed extraordinary; the characters are intricate, complex yet relatable. Even the town of Gravesend – an imaginary town in New Hampshire – feels like an actual persona in the novel; it seems to have its own character and temper. It’s really immersive and somehow hard to escape even when you close the book because it’s time for bed.
I’ll level with you, I’m not quite finished with the book (I have about another hundred pages to go) because surprisingly I found it’s not a book one can rush through; it’s too richly layered and textured for a quick read. I’m glad my review for next week’s book’s typed and ready to post so I can take the time to finish this one properly.
I’m finding this book to be a challenge in different ways: one, the subjects it tackles aren’t easy and cannot be overlooked or dismissed. I can relate to some of it: the hypocrisy of organized religion and the doubt one must experience as a believer without denying the importance of faith in the characters’ lives. Owen is such a dual character there: he believes almost with no doubt, as few people can. Yet, he questions the dogma even from a young age. Faith and fate are big parts of the book and these can’t leave a reader completely immune. We all have opinions about faith and fate; so when these are being questioned even by a book we are stirred to react, maybe – when the writer is good and Irving is more than that – to wonder if maybe there isn’t a point we had missed.
Second, I’ll be honest, I didn’t like the fact that every single sentence uttered by Owen Meany is written in capital letters. The purpose of this was clear to me from the first; John’s description of Owen’s voice is such that I can actually hear the shrill sound of a boy who’s always almost screaming so people can hear him. But I didn’t like it; it made me uncomfortable, which might have been another purpose.
I usually find stories written about childhood from an adult’s point of view not to work that much for me (To Kill a Mockingbird for example), but here there’s no tentative from the narrator to talk about his childhood without denying that some of the feelings or details he describes are in hindsight. And there’s something about memory that he admits is tricky because the mind plays tricks on you. Memory too; sometimes you think you don’t remember something and it overwhelms you, other times you remember something clearly then realize that it wasn’t as your mind reconstructed it. I enjoyed that; it made it more realistic to me.
All in all it was a difficult but very good read, and a book much deserving of its place on the 100 books to read before you die list. I don’t think I would have managed even a year ago. Irving’s isn’t easy reading. But it’s worth the effort it takes.