I’m not really sure how to review A Prayer for Owen Meany. I’ve never actually reviewed a book quite like it. It’s not science fiction, and it’s not fantasy (although it could be argued that Owen’s long held belief that he saw his own gravestone in the set of a local production of A Christmas Carol in which he played the Ghost of Christmas Future as a child and then his later dreams that he also saw his actual death is a fantastical element. There’s also his and his parent’s belief that he’s the result of a virgin birth). A Prayer for Owen Meany, is like a number of author John Irving’s works, an excursion through the life of an extraordinary individual, set in the New England area of the US and mostly in the 50’s and the 60’s.
It isn’t actually the first John Irving book I’d ever read. Prior to seeing A Prayer for Owen Meany, I’d read The World According to Garp and Cider House Rules, in fact I think I’d seen the films based on those books as well. They did later base a film on A Prayer for Owen Meany, it was called Simon Birch, it only covered the early part of the book and changed the ending, which seemed to bear out the author’s belief that the book wasn’t really filmable.
Despite not being the first of Irving’s novels that I’d ever read it is my favourite and the only one I think I’ve ever read more than once.
Owen’s story is told by his best friend John Wheelwright. John is one of the most passive narrators I’ve ever encountered in fiction. He’s a character who is remarkable by being completely unremarkable. For most of the book John lives completely in Owen Meany’s shadow, which considering the fact that Owen is physically undersized for all his life (never even reaching 5 feet in height) is quite an achievement. But Owen is that sort of character; he’s larger than life and just seems to overwhelm everyone around him.
The story is told in quite an unusual structure and in the hands of a lesser writer than Irving probably would have failed. It moves in and out of time, backwards and forwards, even in John’s reminiscences made from the safety of 1987. The second half of the book tends to follow a more linear path, with John’s current day interludes breaking up the continuing journey of Owen and John to it’s inevitable and tragic end.
The reminiscences about Owen’s life back in Gravesend do have a rather surreal quality about them and at times I wondered if they all really happened, and if they did were they as reported by John down the passage of years, from his embittered self imposed exile in Canada. I did start to think that maybe John was in fact an unreliable narrator and Owen and many, if not all, the folk in Gravesend were in fact not real, but fictional constructs that he used to make sense of his life. I later came to the conclusion that this was not in fact the case, but it was an interesting thing to consider at some points of the book.
The first half of the book is for me, more enjoyable than the second. In part this may stem from Irving’s affection for New England small town life in the 50’s and early 60’s. As he grows I found Owen to become a less likeable character and the wider world intruding on the lives of the folk of Gravesend, New Hampshire, gave it a more sinister feel. John’s interludes in 1987 became more frequent and longer and I really didn’t found John, his musings on religion, virginity, the Reagan administration (in particular the Iran contra affair) and classic literature, all that interesting. Owen’s speech had by then also become a little bit tiresome (Owen has a ruined voice, and every time he speaks everything he says is capitalised to emphasise how odd his voice actually is, at the start of the book when he’s a child it’s quite fun, but it becomes wearing as he grows).
I always have a deep sorrow for John and Owen when Owen accidentally kills John’s mother. I actually feel sorrier for Owen than I do for John, which is weird, because John’s the one who loses his parent. I should explain the nature of the death.
Due to his size Owen is not much of an athlete, but he does like baseball. Both he and John play on a Little League team. Owen can barely hit a ball and every time he tries he just about knocks himself off his own feet. However because he’s so small he has an almost non existent strike zone, which makes him a useful player if a base is needed. Owen will nearly always get walked. On this one day he goes up to bat and is encouraged to ‘swing away’. He misses the first two pitches, but connects on the third. It’s a foul ball and it hits Tabby Wheelwright on the sidelines, who has stopped by to see the boys play and was distracted by someone in the crowd so wasn’t looking when the fateful struck her in the head and killed her instantly.
It’s the only ball Owen ever hit, it was a foul and it killed the mother of his best friend and a woman he had more affection than his own mother. Owen’s mother is a shut in, she’s more than likely mentally ill, and Tabby seemed to sort of adopt him. Now he killed her. The image of Owen desperately telling John ‘I’M SORRY!’ and then running away is one of the saddest things I’ve ever read and I feel so much for the character in that moment.
There’s a deep longing from John to go back to those days of the early 50’s when his mother was still alive, before he and Owen went to Gravesend Academy, before President Kennedy was elected and before the US got itself embroiled in a foreign conflict from which John never seemed to recover, and Owen did not survive.
Despite its flaws (it’s too long for one), A Prayer for Owen Meany is a book that never fails to make me think, smile, frown, laugh and cry. It’s a worthy entry in the Great ReRead Project.