Review: A Prayer for Owen Meany

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John Irving is a genius.

I picked up A Prayer for Owen Meany with some apprehension. (I am not always a fan of modern literature, for a variety of reasons, but I'll spare you that rant for now.) I had somehow managed to make it this far without ever reading Irving, and I suspected I was happier for it. Not.

(Digression: This review was previously published on The Walrus Said.)

Appropriately enough for a novel in which the voice of Owen Meany has such a central importance, it was the voice of the writer that drew me in. The novel opens thus:

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice--not because of his voice or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother's death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

I don't know about you, but I find it intriguing that somebody becomes a believer because of the person who was the instrument of his mother's death. And what does he mean by "instrument" anyway? More questions pop up rather promptly: who was Johnny Wheelwright's father? Why was Owen Meany so angry with his parents? You have to get almost all the way through the 672 pages to get most of these questions answered. I'll confess, I did find the journey a little long sometimes, but not too much. Irving is capable of writing laugh-out-loud scenes and the way he writes a story is so engaging, I was prepared to forgive him a few slow spots.

Apart from the story-telling voice, what most impressed me about this book was the intricate interweaving of the various elements of the story. It never felt forced, but even in 672 pages, few elements of the story are single-use, disposable items. They duck in and out of the story, significance accreting to them with each successive appearance. The way Irving accomplishes this without it ever feeling contrived had me marvelling.  And you can practically feel the author winking at you when a literary allusion tips off alert readers to the answer to one of the riddles before the narrator finds out.

The political rants, while supposedly being those of the narrator, do come across as something more, which I feel weakened the book a little also. But again, I shall forgive.

This book will not make a Christian out of anybody, but neither is it a veiled attack on Christianity. It shouldn't much change the piety quotient of anybody reading it, because that really isn't the point of the book.

As a Canadian, I much appreciated that the Canadian components of the book were accurate and I wasn't much surprised to find out Irving actually has a residence in Toronto. I doubt if a non-resident American could have pulled it off quite so well, as he spends some time discussing the Canadian mindset, and nailing it. Or at least nailing what it was at the time in question. It's evolved a wee bit since.

In a way, I rather wish A Prayer for Owen Meany had not been such a good book. Then I could have crossed John Irving off of my reading list, which is insanely long. Alas, I shall be obliged to read more. Maybe even to buy some.

Other reviews:

New York Times 1989

Complete Reviews

The Satirist

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