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A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving

25 Feb

Where do I begin? This book has me firmly in its THRALL and that’s the best way I know how to describe the effect it has had on me!

DSC_0033The blurb is deceptive or maybe I took it too literally and thought this was going to be another story of a strong friendship, that disintegrates or survives – I couldn’t tell which. But APOM (sorry for the Acronym :P, although I don’t think Owen would mind!), is about so much more than a glorious friendship…‘epic’ as it is, this friendship between Johnny & Owen! But the book set before & during the Vietnam War years in small town USA, is an evocative social commentary on the myriad opinions, debates and reactions of American citizens to their Governments, their fellow citizens and the War itself. It highlights their personal struggles against the background of their collective ones and does so with panache.

It makes for fantastical, fascinating reading and even now I’m reluctant to quit the Meany universe as I’ve come to call it! Truly – Owen Meany is a unique character and a fine creation – unforgettable and with an aura to him that ever so often reminded me of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favourite characters in literary fiction! His quirkiness, his foibles, his single-minded pursuit of a goal, his keenness of mind and spirit, his compassion, his unending curiosity and extraordinary empathetic ability make him one of the most complex yet adorable characters that I’ve come across in a very long time. His friendship with Johnny is similarly complex in the manner of all great friendships whether in real life or literature, and just as poignant. I don’t want to reveal the story here but let’s just say that I totally understand Johnny’s prayer at the end, when all is said and done. It reminds me of Sam & Frodo, at the end of the journey, when they lie helpless and awaiting certain death in the fires of Mount Doom. Epic.

Although Owen Meany is the soul of this book and its story, the other people in it are by no means forgettable or ordinary in any sense of the word! Tabby Wheelwright, Grandma – Harriet Wheelwright, Dan Needham, The Meanys, Pastor Merrill, Rector Wiggin, Hester the Molester and of course Johnny Wheelwright the narrator of the story are all well-written and thought out personalities. Together with Owen they form the canvas upon which his extraordinariness radiates. He is the glue that holds Gravesend and its dwellers together and he sometimes echoes their thoughts, ideas and feelings and at others challenges them in atrocious ways!

The Vietnam War is of course the main theme in this story and Irving uses it effectively & skilfully as a character of its own – but the other major theme is Faith. What it means and how it affects us – in both lack and excess, are the major issues the characters deal with, each in their own way, each with inevitably different results. I learnt a few things about Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Anglicans and their different ways of worshiping a similar God. It makes for some interesting reading! Irving’s writing, his style, his prose – all of it is perfect for the story and his characters. Not a word seems excessive, not an idea awry, not a thought misguided, not a title out-of-place. This is my first book by him and it makes me feel like if this was the only book he ever wrote, it would have been fine! It would have been enough! It’s that kind of book 🙂

This is a book I will definitely be re-reading. It’s the kind of book in which every reading will offer an original experience, a new enlightenment, but most of all I will read it because I cannot bear to part from Owen Meany any more than his friends could and because in his company, Life would seem so much simpler. He’s like that is Owen – call him what you will, ‘The Granite Mouse’, ‘The Voice’, he’s a wonderful friend! Make him yours 🙂

My copy of APOM, as you can see in the picture is colorfully tagged with a ton of fluorescent post-its, but I’ll include just one excerpt out of the several that took a hold of heart and put it through the wringer! This one spoke to me, coz who among us hasn’t suffered loss? Who among us hasn’t felt this way at one time or another?

“When someone you love dies, and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time – the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes – when there’s a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she’s gone, forever – there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.”

And because I can never stop at one (even if I did promise :P), but also because I feel this is so true even today, several decades after Vietnam, when the US appears to have learnt next to nothing from past mistakes…sigh…although it is certainly not alone in its failure to do so!

“Every American should be forced to live outside the United States for a year or two. Americans should be forced to see how ridiculous they appear to the rest of the world! They should listen to someone else’s version of themselves – to anyone else’s version! Every country knows more about America than Americans know about themselves! And Americans know absolutely nothing about any other country!”

And how can I not quote Owen’s reaction to Marilyn Monroe’s sudden demise? Such a unique perspective too! And because it’s Owen, it has to be all CAPS 😉

“SHE WAS JUST LIKE OUR WHOLE COUNTRY – NOT QUITE YOUNG ANYMORE, BUT NOT OLD EITHER; A LITTLE BREATHLESS, VERY BEAUTIFUL, MAYBE A LITTLE STUPID, MAYBE A LOT SMARTER THAN SHE SEEMED. AND SHE WAS LOOKING FOR SOMETHING – I THINK SHE WANTED TO BE GOOD. LOOK AT THE MEN IN HER LIFE – JOE DIMAGGIO, ARTHUR MILLER, MAYBE THE KENNEDYS. LOOK AT HOW GOOD THEY SEEM! LOOK AT HOW DESIRABLE SHE WAS! THAT’S WHAT SHE WAS: SHE WAS DESIRABLE. SHE WAS FUNNY AND SEXY – AND SHE WAS VULNERABLE, TOO. SHE WAS NEVER QUITE HAPPY, SHE WAS ALWAYS A LITTLE OVER-WEIGHT. SHE WAS JUST LIKE OUR COUNTRY.”

Ok…and this last one (coz why stop at 3 when 4 is so much better and the promise is already broken :P), which incidentally serves to describe this book as well as any…

“It was Owen Meany who taught me that any good book is always in motion – from the general to the specific, from the particular to the whole, and back again. Good reading – and good writing about reading – moves the same way.”

 READ THE BOOK!

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Posted by on February 25, 2013 in Non-Booker Reviews

 

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2 responses to “A Prayer for Owen Meany – John Irving

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