A Son of the Circus, by John Irving

Eight stars

Returning for a second novel by John Irving, I was transported to India, where the culture shock was massive and the storytelling proved to be quite non-linear. All that being said, with patience and perseverance, I made it through this unique piece of writing and even feel that I enjoyed it. The circus is preparing for its next performance and, as always, there is something going on that is of interest. In India, the use of Achondroplastic dwarfs is quite common in the circus, allowing for some of the tricks to seem even more death-defying. However, it is not that which interests Dr. Farrokh Daruwalla. Instead, he prefers to locate a gene that might identify this dwarfism, trying to do so every time he returns home to Toronto. That Dr. Daruwalla is an orthopaedic surgeon seems of little concern to him or anyone else, though his medical specialty is also relevant at times. As Dr. Daruwalla is unable to locate a dwarf genetic marker, he is back for more blood testing, in hopes of being lucky this one time. While dining with a friend at the private club, Dr. Daruwalla is alerted to a murder on the golf course, where someone has been struck by a club. Unable to decipher what has gone on, Dr. Daruwalla uses some of his intuition to deduce what could have happened. Little known to anyone, Dr. Daruwalla is the author of a series of screenplays about an Inspector Dhar, one of India’s most renowned film stars. This is truly the central premise of the book—finding out who murdered the club member on the ninth green—but there is so much backstory to decipher about a handful of characters and how their interactions over the span of forty years has led to this point. Irving weaves many highly intricate storylines together, most in India, to tell of how the elder Dr. Daruwalla taught his son, Farrokh, some of the ins and outs of orthopaedics and what a chance filming of a horrible movie in India did for the community, as well as how it enriched the next generation of people who come to play their part in this book. From child prostitutes to accepted (and praised) alternative lifestyles, all of these flavourings of India come together to create this massive tome that has quite the story to tell, as long as the reader is patient and attentive in equal measure. Well-crafted, but not for all readers, I found this to be yet another winner by John Irving. Recommended for the type of reader who can handle tangential writing, as well as those who love all things Indian.

I will be the first to admit that this book will not be for everyone. I read this book and found myself stuck within the story, but could tell that had this been my first Irving, I likely would have pulled the plug. It does not read in a linear fashion in the least, leaping from different timelines in order to fill in many of the cracks and offer backstories for the characters. Irving has so many characters that I chose not to hone in on one to be labelled protagonist. Rather, he fills the chapters with a wonderfully complex and non-linear story that has more tangents than a high school math class. It is by focussing on these stories as central building blocks to the larger narrative that the reader can see how things piece themselves together. I found myself able to devour large chunks of the story at once, if only to better comprehend how things fit together. Irving’s style of detailed discussions will surely cause some readers to feel drowned while others will relish the experience. With long chapters that are broken into small vignettes, the reader can digest Irving’s massive undertaking in more manageable bites. With a unique story and many strong characters, this piece by John Irving is not to be missed by those who have the patience and fortitude.

Kudos, Mr. Irving, for this wonderful piece that challenged me from the start and throughout.

This book serves to fulfil the March 2020 requirement of the Mind the Bookshelf Gapreading group.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving

Nine stars

To begin the year, I tackled one of John Irving’s classic novels that found me laughing throughout, while also extracting some of the serious themes. Owen Meany is a small child, much tinier than those his age. With this, he has the most grating voice one could imagine. Some attribute this to the family granite company, while others prefer to keep the mystery alive. Owen is unlike many other children his age, as his best friend, John Wheelwright, has come to discover. One summer day in 1953, Owen hits a foul ball on the baseball field and ends up killing John’s mother. Owen attributes this as an act of God, one in which he is a vessel for the Almighty. The rest of the novel is set in a number of vignettes involving John and Owen, surrounding by a number of other characters who cross their paths throughout this complex friendship. From a number of interactions with the Wheelwright family through to stunning decisions that could significantly shape his adult life, Owen Meany finds a way to make his impact felt by all those around him, sometimes in a saviour-like manner. This storyline is contrasted nicely with the adult John Wheelwright who has left his native New Hampshire and settled in Toronto, exploring some of the goings-on in modern (1987) America. Having been a resident of Canada for over twenty years, it would seem Wheelwright is unable to accept his new home and struggles significantly with the political foibles in the US, things he superimposes his own Owen Meany perspective upon. Stunning in its delivery and slow momentum build, the story is a lot more than it seems on the surface. Recommended to those readers who love tales that take their time but leave literary breadcrumbs throughout, as well as the reader who enjoys a meandering tale full of messages.

While he has penned a number of great pieces, I have never read John Irving. Even this book was not familiar to me when placed on my reading challenge list. I was not entirely sure how I would feel about it when I read the dust jacket blurb, but I cannot say enough now. Layered between a religious undertone and preachy child who seems to know it all, the story developed in a meandering fashion, but always seemed able to push forward. I found Owen to be as annoying as ever from the opening pages, but I stuck with him and noticed that he has some redeeming moments, even though he seems too pompous and pious for his own good. His prophetic ways and odd obsession with older women—both in admiration and an odd sexual manner—leaves the reader wondering about him, yet also transfixed by his oddities. Even with John as the narrator, Owen seems almost takes centre stage and does not defer at any time. I did enjoy John’s character, as he comes of age alongside his best friend and seems never to hold animosity for the accidental death of his mother. Inseparable for most of the book, John and Owen seem to grow together and experience life through many of same experiences, though their lenses differ greatly. The flash-forwards to John’s 1987 life show that he remains committed to being Owen’s narrative protector and seems unable to divorce himself from his American roots, refusing the conform to the Canada he accepted as his new home. With strong religious ties to his Episcopalian (Anglican) upbringing, John Wheelwright sheds some of that on the reader as well. With a full cast of wonderfully diverse characters, the story moves forward and is flavoured repeatedly as things take many a tangential turn. Irving is a master at this type of colourful depiction, never losing the reader, no matter how far off the beaten path things get. The story appears to be a quilted collection of memories and vignettes, but soon finds its groove and the reader is able to see the themes that Irving embeds within the narrative. These gems slowly come to create a larger masterpiece that the patient reader is able to see for themselves by the final few pages. I am happy that I was able to last this lengthy piece, as its rewards surely outweigh the non-linear nature of the story at times.

Kudos, Mr. Irving, for a stunning piece well worthy of a nine-star rating!

This book fulfils the January requirement of the Mind the Bookshelf Gap reading challenge.

This book also fulfils Topic #3: Children Matter, in the Equinox #9 reading challenge.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons