Constable and Robinson £17.99
Review: The Round House, By Louise Erdrich
Teenage kicks on the reservation keep hard times at bay
Sunday 12 May 2013
Louise Erdrich's The Round House arrives in Britain accompanied by great expectations: the novel won 2012's prestigious American National Book Award. Our narrator has hints of Dickens too: 13-year-old Joe Coutts, who narrates his childhood on a Native American reservation in North Dakota. His substantial father is a judge, his mother researches "the ever more complicated branching and unbranching" of family bloodlines.
The first half of The Round House reads like a literary hybrid: three parts superior whodunit to two parts coming-of-age. The book opens with an allegorical prophecy: Joe and his father excavate tree roots that are undermining the foundations of the Coutts family home. Then the first violent plot development blows this away. Uncharacteristically, Joe's mother has gone missing for an entire afternoon. Almost the entire novel is devoted to unravelling what happened: that she was abducted, raped, held hostage, covered in gasoline and escaped thanks only to luck and her own quick thinking.
Joe and his father sift through possible perpetrators in the pursuit of justice – although justice is frequently synonymous with cruder forms of vengeance, especially after they realise how difficult it will be to prosecute the most likely suspect. If this makes The Round House sound heavy going, it is deceptive.
Erdrich understands that even life's grimmest periods are accompanied by joy, humour, and abandon, especially for a teenage boy. As time passes, the rape and attempted murder become inevitable facts in Joe's life, which compete for his attention along with family members and his gang of four friends: above all the nonchalant sex-god, Cappy.
Erdrich is brilliant when evoking teenage banter, which pinballs between childhood (Star Trek, bikes, swimming in the lake, boyish derring-do, jokes involving manure) and fantasies of adult pleasure: sex, pilfered cigarettes, swigs of beer and the rare, stale joint. An afternoon skinny dipping leads into some pitch-perfect, Star Wars banter about penis envy: "Zack laughed at me, Aren't you a little short for a Storm Trooper? Size matters not. Judge me by my size, do you?" Carry on Yoda.
Erdrich's prose and dialogue is a wonder. She can do comedy, suspense, supernatural parables, and even that trickiest of literary challenges: the awe-inspiring sunset. "The sun burned forever and stayed balanced on the horizon for an age, then flared red from below that dark line for another eternity. So it seemed that time stopped."
Joe is utterly believable, even if the torrent of despair that rains down upon him occasionally beggars belief. His story modulates between light and darkness, hope and despair to become a confession of sins, and a cri de coeur about the mistreatment of Native tribes throughout American history.
Arguably Erdrich's most shocking sentence is reserved for her afterword: "1 in 3 Native women will be raped in her lifetime (and that figure is certainly higher as Native women often do not report rape); 86% of rapes and sexual assaults upon Native women are perpetrated by non-Native men; few are prosecuted." The Round House is an extraordinary, engrossing novel, which should live long in the memory.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
- 2 Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
- 3 Make your voice heard: Sign The Independent's petition to welcome refugees
- 4 Refugee crisis: Aylan's life was full of fear - in death, he is part of 'humanity washed ashore'
- 5 German police forced to ask public to stop bringing donations for refugees arriving by train
Hey Arnold! is coming back, and possibly Rugrats too
First Look at Bryan Cranston transformed into LBJ for HBO’s ‘All the Way’ film
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
Photographer captures the beauty and intensity of his girlfriend giving birth at home
Prog rock finally comes of age with launch of the first Official Progressive Chart
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches – it's time to act
Britain to take more refugees as Cameron bows to pressure after more than 200,000 back our campaign
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don't change Europe's attitude to refugees, what will?
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up