Yesterday I finished reading the ninth Tournament of Books 2019 book, Heidi Sopinka’s “The Dictionary of Animal Languages“, which is running against Esi Edugyan’s “Washington Black” in the third round of the competition.
“The Dictionary of Animal Languages” is a technically difficult novel to read: the language is dense, the plot isn’t linear and at least at first it takes time to figure out who is talking, what’s going on, and in which timeline (one of the several past ones, or the present) you are. It doesn’t help that dialog isn’t delineated with quotation marks and often it isn’t clear who is talking, or whether they are talking or you are in their mind. If it wasn’t for the tournament I would have probably not have bothered with this book after wading through the first 2-3 chapters.
Ivory’s life is complicated and fascinating, but difficult to construct when broken up into non consecutive pieces and portrayed as it is. The characters and settings are very good (vivacious and interesting), and if the story was reconstructed in a more linear fashion it would be “unputdownable”. Sopinka is trying to show Ivory’s life in bursts, not unlike field recordings that you listen to in the lab and try to make sense of, but it really is too much effort for the ending result.
The novel is lyrical and touches on a lot of interesting themes (women’s roles and choices in the worlds of art and science, for example) , but the first third of it moves like thick pudding through a fine sieve. If you get through that, the last half is so much more interesting and rewarding than the first one, although it rushes through some plot points that feel like they shouldn’t be rushed through. There are too many coincidences in the plot (get captured and escape from prison camps much?), there are familial ties that are severed with no explanation or time to mourn (what happened to her brothers? Did Lev really breeze through retelling his brother’s death with not even a moment’s pause?) , and then there is the peculiar animal languages dictionary that is constantly evoked but never really explained to the reader, and you wonder why.
In short, this is a book in need of a more adept writer or a much stricter editor. The bones that are there are interesting enough to merit wading through the first part if you’re interested in contemporary fiction. There’s something there that with time and experience could probably make for a masterpiece some day.
It’s interesting that the Tournament of Books pitched “The Dictionary of Animal Languages” against “Washington Black” as the first has a weak beginning and a strong ending and the last has a strong beginning and a weak ending. Could they have made a perfect collaborative novel together? Jokes aside, Sopkina’s book is a better, if far from perfect, work of fiction, and her novel is lyrical while “Washington Black” only tries really hard to be. “Dictionary”‘s characters are better written and conceived, its plot, once reconstructed, is more compelling, and even its treatment of the animal conservation theme and social pariah/underdog themes are more nuanced and compelling. That is surprising considering the idea behind “Washington Black” seems more powerful and interesting than the one behind “Dictionary”, but Sopinka totally wins in execution against Edugyan.