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Review: The Round House, By Louise Erdrich

Teenage kicks on the reservation keep hard times at bay

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.