I had The Round House by Louise Erdrich on my bookshelf for about nine months before I remembered it was there. I read it in just a few hours once I picked it up, though. I’m not sure why I don’t site Erdrich as one of my favorite writers when people ask, because she is–I’m reminded every time I read one of her books. She is able to nail both breathtaking sentences, memorable characters and suspenseful, engaging plots all at the same time.
The Round House is about a thirteen year old boy named Joe, his family, and friends as they navigate a terrible crime–a vicious, brutal rape–committed against his mother. (That’s not a spoiler–it happens right away!). There’s the matter of who did it to figure out, and then how to prosecute or avenge the crime once the mystery is solved. There’s the why–both the personal and political. Speaking of politics, there are plenty–national, local, historical, sexual. There’s tradition and religion; some of the most interesting religion is in the person of a young, super-fit, aggressive and enigmatic priest.
Friendship plays as much of a part in the story as family. As Joe’s three best friends are introduced, Erdrich lets the reader know that one of them dies young. It is an interesting tactic, weirdly causing rather than deflating suspense. The other similar strategy Erdrich uses is a scant few sentences of flash forwards in the middle of the book, letting the reader know how Joe’s life turns out when he’s grown. If I were her, I would have worried that doing that would take some of the fire out of the story, knowing how it works out in the end. But, by assuaging certain fears the reader might have, she allows us to focus our attention elsewhere. She doesn’t let our anxieties fall where they may, but expertly manipulates them.
At two points in the book, Erdrich departs from the main narrative, interrupting it with a new title, and gives us someone else’s story. One story is another character’s history and gives us–and Joe–important information. Another is a sort of mystical story told by a man in a dream state, and relates to the main story as a parallel or a metaphor. I haven’t read all sixteen of Erdrich’s other books, but I actually think that this story is similar to the plot of one of her earlier novels. It is neat the way she dispenses with the kind of artifice that would be required to work these two stories into the fabric of the novel seamlessly, and just gives them their own space.
Erdrich is a daring, beautiful and bold writer and this book is a prime example of her genius.