There are a lot of platitudes banded around when it comes to book reviews and we have all been misled by quotes on books about it being "the best book I've read this year" etc. as we make a rushed purchase at the airport bookshop. In the case of Louise Erdrich's most recent novel, two giants of literature are quoted on the front cover;
'Louise Erdrich is the most interesting American novelist to have appeared in years.' Philip Roth
'Louise Erdrich is the rarest kind of writer; as compassionate as she is sharp-sighted.' Anne Tyler
Well in this case we can believe the hype, because The Round House is superb. Unusual, educating, sad, uplifting, frustrating ...I could go on, but this is just to illustrate the extent of emotions Erdrich is able to draw from her reader as we follow the story of young Joe and his family and friends.
The Round House is set in North Dakota on a reservation in 1988. An attack has taken place but the details are slow to emerge as a result of the trauma suffered by the victim, Geraldine Coutts. Both the police, her husband Bazil, who is the tribal judge, and Joe her thirteen year old son want to know what happened but Geraldine shuts everyone out and takes to her bed and from this one incident the family's whole world is changed. It is Joe who tells the story and it is Joe who is determined to avenge his mother's attacker. He becomes part of the adult world overnight, a world that he finds ineffectual in its methods of justice, undertaking his own investigation along with his trusty posse of friends-Cappy, Zack and Angus. What he finds causes a separate chain of events to occur alongside the original one, events he is not able to control.
This superb tale, set in the little known world of the Indian tribes has tragedy alongside great humour. Erdrich manages to bring in historical political injustices that the Indian people have suffered without the reader feeling pity but more admiration for how they have held their heads high over hurdles that could have knocked them down. But even though the identity of the peoples is tantamount to the story, the real tale is with Joe, a teenager who takes on the challenge of tracking down his mother's attacker, becoming an adult before he is ready and learning many of life's lessons in a very short space of time. The characters are richly drawn and we believe in them from the start. We want justice for the crime and are behind Joe even when his choices seem foolhardy. The drawing in of ancient Indian tales is a fine technique, adding weight and extra interest to the text.
The Round House won the US National Book Award. Erdrich has written thirteen books, her previous book being The Plague of Doves, winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The Round House is published by Constable and Robinson www.constablerobinson.com